by Michael Goldberg
Monday, August 5, 2002
Bruce Springsteen's Non-Event
He may be on the cover of Time again, but The Rising sure ain't Born to Run.
The best song on Bruce Springsteen's long-awaited studio album, The Rising, is almost a throwaway. It's called "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," and if it were missing from the album, you probably wouldn't miss it. It has nothing to do with the heavy, dark and serious statement about a post- 9/11 America that Springsteen makes through most of the 14 other songs that appear on the album. Conceptually, the album would hold together just fine without it.
No, "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" is a fun song. It reminds me of "Hungry Heart," a song that didn't seem to fit the album it was on The River either. It's slightly racy you can see Springsteen smile as the character in the song makes his move, singing, "The time is now, maybe we could get skin to skin."
If only the rest of The Rising were as good as "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." There's so much weight on this album. And it's been turned into such an event. Weeks before its release a New York Times profile let the world know that 9/11 had brought Bruce out of a writer's block and allowed him to find his "rock voice" again. His new album, we learned, was about the impact of 9/11 on Americans. Not only that, but we read that the fans needed him. In that article Springsteen said that a few days after Sept. 11, as he was leaving a parking lot in the Jersey Shore town of Sea Bright, a fan rolled down the car window and shouted, "We need you!"
Last week he was on the cover of Time magazine again 27 years after the news weekly called him "Rock's New Sensation" this time with the headline "Reborn in the U.S.A.: How Bruce Springsteen reached out to 9/11 survivors and turned America's anguish into art."
All of this hoopla is, frankly, annoying. From a business standpoint, it probably makes good sense. But it makes Springsteen look like an opportunist. And it also sets him up for accusations of "much ado about nothing."
If you haven't been paying attention, well, it's been a long time since Springsteen made a really good album of new material. You have to reach back to 1987 and Tunnel of Love. Since then there were those two studio albums he did without the E Street Band (Human Touch and Lucky Town), a greatest-hits album, the so-so folky Ghost of Tom Joad, a collection of old stuff (stuff that didn't make the cut for various albums Bruce was working on back when he was firing on all six cylinders) titled Tracks, and a truly pointless live album from his 2000 oldies-but-goodies tour, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band/ Live in New York City.
As a longtime Springsteen fan and media junkie, I, of course, bought into the hype; on the morning The Rising was released I plunked down my $20 to buy the special book-like version of the album with the extra photos and handwritten notes. I'd already read a pan in Newsweek and raves in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, and had heard good things from a friend who'd already spent a few days with it.
I would like to say that none of that had any impact on me. And that I was able to just let the album live or die based solely on the music. But I'd lying if I said that. I brought all kinds of expectations and preconceptions to The Rising. And I found, even during my first listen, even as I kept telling myself "Withhold judgement, just listen, no need to put on that 'critic's hat' yet," that my emotions were all over the place, I was reacting, and not just to the music. But then, later, I thought, "No, you're reacting to all that other stuff because something is missing in the music.
I have listened to the album more than a dozen times during the past three days. On first listen, I thought it sucked. Now, many listens later, I like some of it, but I find problems with much of the songwriting, production and arrangements. Many of the arrangements sound heavy-handed and some of the lyrics seem shallow and clichéd ("I'm waitin', waitin' on a sunny day/ Gonna chase the clouds away/ Waitin' on a sunny day," goes one less-than-inspired chorus).
"Further On [Up the Road] is a perfect example of a song that never should have been recorded. The melody is hackneyed and tired we've heard these hard rock changes before, and they weren't that good in the first place. The beat is plodding, the music a murky mass of guitars is indistinct, uninteresting. It's really hard to imagine the man who once wrote "Thunder Road" and "Adam Raised a Cain" singing these words: "Further on up the road/ Further on up the road/ Where the way is dark and the night is cold/ One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know/ And I'll meet you further on up the road."
Then there's the problem of the sound of the E Street Band. On such classic albums as Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen and the band together created an unmistakable sound. It utilized classic rock 'n' roll elements and instruments including acoustic piano, Hammond organ and saxophone, along with bass, drums and electric guitars. Yet on The Rising, many of the tracks incorporate that truly irritating synth sound that I believe first reared its ugly head on "Dancing in the Dark." With a drummer as talented as Max Weinberg, why make use of a drum machine? Often producer Brendan O'Brien turns the E Street Band into an anonymous rock band, neutering them of the idiosyncratic stylistic elements that for so many years made Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band sound like themselves.
If I'm making The Rising sound like a disaster, well, it's not that extreme. Springsteen has made a mediocre album. Not a bad album. Just not an album that I'll go back to in years to come, the way I periodically go back to the albums he recorded in the '70s and first half of the '80s. Still, there are some powerful songs here. "Empty Sky," in particular, is a standout. It has a strong melody, a simple, moving arrangement and powerful lyrics. The chorus is a disappointment ("Empty sky/ Empty sky/ I woke up this morning to an empty sky" repeated twice), but the way Springsteen sings it, with moving background vocals from his wife Patti Scialfa, makes it work. "Into the Fire," "You're Missing" and "Paradise" are also pretty good. And Springsteen's voice, throughout, sounds terrific.
And then there's "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." If it wasn't buried in the middle of all these "heavy" songs that we know were inspired by 9/11, you'd just think it was a great, slightly retro soul number. You'd start bouncing around the room or rockin' in your car when it came on. You'd smile, give your boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband a kiss. And your day would be just a little bit better.
I expect a lot from Bruce Springsteen. His recordings have earned him a place among rock's greats. I understand that producing great work on demand isn't easy and perhaps is impossible. I feel for him. Listening to The Rising is a little like running into an old friend who's been through some hard times and hasn't quite recovered. You know it's the same guy, but that spark is missing. You want it to be there so bad, but it isn't.
All I want from Bruce Springsteen is an album that gives me goosebumps, the kind I still get when I listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town, or Highway 61 Revisited or Call the Doctor. That's probably too much to ask.