Lift Every Voice

September 11 affected us all in different ways, and the way it affected Bruce Springsteen was this—as the second tower toppled from the sky, he was plunged into a world of eternal vagueness. You can wander through The Rising for countless stanzas without tripping over a single concrete object. Plenty of strength, hope, faith, all those unquantifiable qualities that won't fill your belly or get you laid on Saturday night. But nothing you could conceivably hold in your hands, stick in your back pocket, trade in for cash money.

Even deceptively familiar nouns fade into indistinct images on this 73-minute offering. Blood isn't really blood, guns aren't really guns, roads aren't really roads. A kiss is not a kiss, a sigh is not a sigh. Then, just as gut-souring weightlessness overwhelms me, Springsteen lets slip a homely detail—"Furniture's on the front porch," say. Man, I've never been so happy to see a patio table in all my sorry life. I want to run my tongue along its polyurethane-treated imitation wood grain. I want to dance on it with a wild stagger, with a giddy grin, with Courteney Cox. I want to kick it, like Samuel Johnson, thus empirically refuting the notion that the world is merely an illusion.

OK, so Springsteen has always had a weakness for archetypal shorthand, for rivers and darkness and solemnly misquoted Bible passages. But I do expect some minimum standards from the man who taught me all the wrong things to say to girls, who encouraged me to trip over my own feet in public, who mapped out my earliest escape route from Jersey. (It's as easy as quitting smoking—I've left four times in 15 years.) And one of those expectations is that he not rhyme "Waitin' on a sunny day" with "Gonna chase the clouds away," especially not in a chorus. I mean, can you tell him how to get, how to get to Sesame Street already?

Contrast Bruce's lyrical vacancy with the precision with which Brendan O'Brien has produced the hallowed E Street Band. Bruce's Monmouth mafia has never sounded grander or suppler. O'Brien articulates hooks left implicit in days of E Street past, with newcomer Soozy Tyrell's violin, more John Mellencamp than Dave Matthews, a mnemonic standout. O'Brien's earned his rep as a grunge barber, trimming hard rock's woolly edges. Under his tutelage, Springsteen finally achieves the guitar equivalent of the wall of sound, enormous but not washed out, that he's been aching after ever since he overdubbed "She's the One" into aural mudsplatter back in 1975. And Max Weinberg's unnaturally punctual backbeat fits as snugly and squarely back into his Boss's A-A-B-A as a new sweater vest.

But while the music swells like Sunday morning coming down, Springsteen's preaching can be as hard on your ass as a wooden pew. Even worse, his church isn't the kind that makes you handle snakes, but the kind that makes you miss kickoff. The few rousing uptempo moments here are self-conscious meta-rockers like "Mary's Place," a post-traumatic attempt to learn how to party through your sadness that asks, "Tell me how do we get this started?" Um, just a suggestion, but maybe an opening blurt like "I got seven pictures of Buddha/The prophet's on my tongue/Eleven angels of mercy/Sighin' over that black hole in the sun" ain't the way. C'mon, Bruce—dontcha know when Dylan mumbles shit like that, he's putting us on?

Now more than ever, Springsteen longs for a world out of time, where matters of honor can be settled without the TV blaring in the other room. He sympathizes with his "Nothing Man," a local hero who returns from a life-changing ordeal of some unspecified sort to find his everyday routine both dull and surreal. (Note the topical sleight of hand—the lyrics could be 9-11-derived, or maybe not.) But if you want to evoke the sense of someone yanked out of the ordinary, it helps to evoke some sense of, you know, the ordinary. There's no TRL in Bruce's world, no Dodge Neons or PlayStations, no "Hot in Herre" or Olive Garden or John Ashcroft. While an element of anachronistic cluelessness has always been integral to Bruce's appeal, he now seems vacuum-sealed from the actual present day, as if he was cryogenically frozen at the end of American Graffiti. White America, he could be one of your dads.

September 11 affected us all in different ways, but you'd never know that from The Rising, which speaks in one soothing voice. It's enough to give a fella nasty thoughts. Listening to the conciliatory brotherhood sway "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," for instance, I wondered, what if the dude pontificating "There's a lot of walls need tearing down/Together we could take them down one by one" was some asshole scamming for terror sex in a Park Slope bar a week after the towers fell? You know, "The world is such a lonely place. Let's fuck."

Just my imagination, running away with me. Still, The Rising would only be the testament to human endurance it pretends to be if it captured actual humans actually enduring, idiosyncratic individuals responding in their idiosyncratic ways. Of course, that might also be unsettling, because those voices might disagree. And The Rising argues, implicitly but unmistakably, that in a time of crisis we should shrug off our individual concerns in the interest of "healing." Sound familiar?

That's not to equate the heartfelt pieties of one of rock's most decent millionaires with the demands for unanimity launched by those gutting the Fourth Amendment. I mean, I like Bruce. I trust him. If you see Sting panting after you in the rearview mirror of your ambulance, don't slow down for the amber light. At least Bruce pursues his causes with justice in mind, not a hefty cash settlement. If he offers up The Rising to heal his city in ruins, that's because he believes rock and roll has the power to unify.

But has pop culture ever suffered a shortage of vague, uplifting promises? Certainly not now. Puritans blather about selling your soul to the corporation, but the satanic bargain megapop offers is much subtler. You can feel as deeply as you like, just don't think too much, mister. Springsteen's commitment remains, but his message is as attenuated as any random Democratic Party platform, and for similar reasons. He sounds as genuinely hurt and confused as any of us, but if he's gained any insight into that hurt or confusion, he's not about to express it. Might alienate somebody.

In 1992, Springsteen seemed irrelevant because he was outflanked by both rhythm and noise, by PE on the left and Nirvana on the white. If only The Rising seemed that irrelevant today. Because his vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have had to invent one.

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