Redemption Songs 

Bruce Springsteen’s new album plumbs spiritual questions raised in 9/11’s wake

Bruce Springsteen’s new album plumbs spiritual questions raised in 9/11’s wake

Bruce Springsteen

The Rising (Columbia)

Bruce Springsteen wants to save you. He wants to save me. He wants to save all of us. He wants to pull us from the fire, bandage our wounds, wipe away our tears and hold us in his arms. If he had to, he would probably die for us just so we wouldn’t have to suffer one more day.

You don’t even have to listen to the songs on his new album The Rising to know that Springsteen is prepared to shoulder our misery. The CD’s cover art makes it plain. The words “The Rising” run sideways from top to bottom, and they are intersected a third of the way down by Springsteen’s name, forming a perfect cross. The singer’s ghostly picture (two faces are visible, giving it a sort of creepy Shroud of Turin effect) makes it unclear whether it is really him or just a vision of one who has already risen to heaven.

From the beginning of his career, Springsteen’s faith has rested in the human spirit, in the bonds of friendship and in a true undying love of the common people. There are nonbelievers who find this a hokey put-on and dismiss his earnestness. They are entitled to their cynicism, but the truth is that while Springsteen has made creative mistakes, failures even, he has done little that smacks of contrivance or falsehood. If The Rising is an ark, it’s one he built to save us from the flood, not just to show off what a great craftsman he is.

It’s tempting to analyze this complex and important album only in the context of 9/11, especially since Springsteen has said that the day was the catalyst for most of its songs. And that’s what the media overload has been about for the past two weeks, right? That’s why the interviews on Nightline, the cover story by Time magazine, the concert on The Today Show, the appearances on Letterman. At this rate, Oprah and Celebrity Jeopardy can’t be far away.

But this is a record that deals in larger themes. There is nothing here that’s as specific as Neil Young’s vitriolic “Let’s Roll” or Alan Jackson’s moving and well-meaning, if geographically challenged, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” To treat The Rising simply as a response to the events of that day—that calamitous, depressing, horribly frightening day—is to miss a much bigger message Springsteen is trying to send. To do so would be to miss the most unabashedly spiritual—indeed religious—album he’s ever made.

Ostensibly about a firefighter pulling victims to safety, the song “The Rising” doesn’t camouflage its crucifixion and ascension imagery. It’s a Passion play disguised as a song: “On my back’s a 60-pound stone / On my shoulder a half-mile of line... / Left the house this morning / Bells ringing filled the air / Wearin’ the cross of my calling / On wheels of fire I come / Rollin’ down here.” The song then takes on a hallucinatory quality as the refrain “A dream of life” is sung in response to a series of symbolic images before culminating in the ecstatic chorus: “Come on up for the rising / Come on up, lay your hands in mine.”

The messianic hints don’t stop there. The narrator in the powerfully rocking “Further On (Up the Road)” finds himself “out in the desert, just doin’ my time / Searchin’ through the dust, lookin’ for a sign.” “Into the Fire,” another haunting song that is essentially a prayer, comes with this pleading incantation: “May your strength give us strength / May your faith give us faith / May your hope give us hope / May your love bring us love.” The apostles couldn’t have said it better. On the album’s 15 tracks, there are only three individuals named: the Lord, Mary and Joe, a trio better known to Catholics (the faith in which Springsteen was raised) as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a triumvirate of holiness, virtue and humility.

As with anyone struggling with issues of faith, Springsteen finds darkness and evil as well. The images are everywhere: “devil’s in the mailbox” (an anthrax reference?), “viper’s in the grass,” “devil’s on the horizon line,” “hell’s brewin’.” The dangers of a zealous and unchecked belief are brought out in “Paradise,” a gripping song that starts out from the perspective of a suicide bomber and moves on to that of the spouse of a Pentagon victim. Only on “You’re Missing”—a desperate and aching story of loss that, along with “Empty Sky,” feels most connected to the aftermath of Sept. 11—does despair seem to overcome belief. The last line, “I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops,” is a crushing vision of emptiness.

Elsewhere, on songs like “Countin’ on a Miracle” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” Springsteen is clearly seeking understanding, redemption and rebirth—all rewards of faith. The music on many of these tracks is also redemptive, filled with life and energy even when the lyrics betray uncertainty and grief. It’s a Springsteen trademark to offer music as a cathedral—as sounds for reflection as well as celebration. A buoyant Jersey-shore beat invigorates “Mary’s Place,” a rocker that sounds most like the early E-Street Band. It feels like a party song, but it’s really about moving on after loss. It’s about finding, as Springsteen offered 20 years ago at the conclusion of Nebraska, a reason to believe. “My heart’s dark but it’s risin’ / I’m pullin’ all the faith I can see,” he sings, while also wondering, “Tell me how do you get this thing started” and “Tell me how do you live brokenhearted.”

There is, it seems, an underlying effort in this album to reconnect us to that community we discovered in the shared pain, anguish and consolation in the early weeks and months after Sept. 11. A community we want to tap into but are dissuaded from doing so by the mindless isolation proffered by escapist “reality” shows, video games, Internet excess and the blither-blather of television’s talking heads. In a numbed-down America, the Boss is looking to faith to open our hearts. That’s got to be better than putting “a boot in [someone’s] ass,” as Toby Keith suggests in “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

Of course, we know Springsteen can’t literally die for us. But he does sincerely seem to want to help us save ourselves. And to do that he’s offered up his music and songs as a saving grace.

We’re not used to pop stars who care this much. We’re not used to any public figure who cares this much. We expect our leaders’ platitudes to be followed by selfish acts and pettiness. We’ve become cynical, and rightly so in many cases. It’s a testament to Springsteen’s compassion and spirit that he can create art this nuanced, thoughtful and redemptive and make us believe in it. “My City of Ruins,” the album’s gospel-infused final track, is a song he wrote about Asbury Park, N.J., but it could apply to belief in anything. On it he renews us—and himself—with a prayer for faith, strength and love, before ending with a rousing heavenly plea: “Come on, rise up / Come on, rise up / Come on, rise up / Come on, rise up.”

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