BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN volunteers for heavy duty with his newest album, "The Rising" (Columbia Records). He pays tribute to the rescue workers who marched into the World Trade Center buildings as they tore and burned and snowed down onto lower Manhattan. He looks to capture the sorrow and shock of waking up to a world as different as the physically altered New York skyline. In another song, the Boss describes the distance between our world and one "'neath Allah's blessed rain." September 11 is everywhere--and nowhere--on this album.
Springsteen has long played the socially conscious rocker. Most famously, on "Born in the U.S.A.," he spoke for veterans returning to the cold embrace of the country that sent them to Vietnam. Later he recorded the doleful title track for the AIDS movie "Philadelphia," and, more recently, he mourned the horrific shooting of Amadou Diallo by New York City's Police Department. All this controversy, however, masks a very controversy-phobic person. For example, Springsteen claimed in "41 shots" not to be criticizing the cops, a difficult position to hold since no one writes songs about accidental shootings, but a position one might try to hold were he afraid of losing his blue-collar creds. This desire to remain in everyone's good standing doesn't serve Springsteen well in approaching the power of September 11. And it makes for great frustration on the listener's part. After all, if Springsteen could be critical of the United States in 1984, why can't he be critical of her enemies today?
But it's not just righteous anger that's missing here. It's war and bitterness and woe, instead of which Bruce Springsteen gives us midtempo sadness. And for him, sadness is simply the opposite of romantic success. Great sadness is therefore a great broken heart.
Saying it like this makes it sound like Springsteen has committed an intellectual misconception, when it is more a matter of emotional habit, his and that of many others. It is not only common but defensible to reference the heart to express the utter dismay felt when one's people suffer a great calamity. Ask our president. But the rhetoric of hearts comes up short just where the terrifying events of September 11 call for something else. Take "Worlds Apart," a strange and oily love song to Islam or Afghanistan or something: "I taste the seed upon your lips, / lay my tongue upon your scars / But when I look into your eyes, / we stand worlds apart." The song, which makes generous use of some singers called Asif Alli Khan and Group, could have the alternate title, "My Little Islam Girl": "Sometimes the truth just ain't enough / Or it's too much in times like this / Let's throw the truth away / we'll find it in this kiss." The rhetoric of hearts, unsupported by the clarity of narrative, becomes nothing more than romantic blathering.
"Empty Sky" states contradictory desires and captures the problem perfectly: "I want a kiss from your lips / I want an eye for an eye." But given the choice between love and war, this album always chooses love. There's no thunder or fury or for that matter any feeling that wasn't already in the Springsteen bank. And those pages from his own book that would have been useful, those communicating desperation and hardship and the feeling of one's head brimming with a hundred difficulties, aren't the ones Bruce is cribbing from today. In short, the new album just doesn't rock. Even the middling catchy pop songs like "Waiting on A Sunny Day" and "Countin' on a Miracle" that are especially light on September 11-related themes, are just kind of wholesomely blue. It's like the whole damn album is waiting to become the soundtrack for the Salvation Army's "One-Year-Later" appeal.
A slow and gentle steel guitar twang introduces the rescue worker tribute, "Into the Fire," which starts with the conceit of one heart calling to another and then switches gears to the more popular social mission of public tribute. "May your strength give us strength / may your faith give us faith / may your hope give us hope" goes the dull and clumsy refrain in this bland, churchy singalong. The third track, "Waiting on A Sunny Day," delivers a passable, lazy-afternoon rock song that could be an okay B-side for any Springsteen single. The full band with sax, bells, and whatnot kicks in for the last third, establishing a pattern followed on several other tracks. Just when you think these songs are going to wither away in the middle, here come the defibrillators, courtesy of the E Street Band.
There is one great song here, "Nothing Man." The title suggests some trite little folk business about humility and the common man and so on. But this one song has so many things the rest of the album can't even come close to: honesty, emotional depth, a delicate style without being whimpy, originality. In short, this song is a little classic amidst rows of superfluous nonentities. The only other worthy tune here is the eloquent lullaby, "You're Missing." With its gentle rocking of cello, it almost gets lost in the quiet of its weepy surroundings, but fortunately its stringent beauty lifts the song clear into view. When the organ starts to ride the ending, it's not to keep you awake.
The more obvious attempts to leap onto the stage and command attention accomplish very little. For example, "The Fuse Is Burning" is a geriatric handling of a classic rock trope of violence and social unrest. If this is the sound of a coming explosion, one won't even need to cover his ears. A total whimper. The title track, "The Rising," is devoid of meaning--an old-fashioned Springsteen roundhouse romp that feels big, but for no good reason. It's hollow and old inside. The album closes with a pair of nothing specials, with drippy spirituality on the side. That they are called "Paradise" and "My City of Ruins" tells you everything: This was supposed to be a sad, yet uplifting and unexpectedly therapeutic experience, a kind-of rock-and-roll Oprah. Unfortunately, that's exactly what it is.
"The Rising" does contribute, in a way, to the debate over whether nothing or everything changed on September 11. Like a lot of people, I switch back and forth on this point. The persistence of reality television makes me think nothing's changed. Palestinians cheering in the street at the deaths of Americans and Israelis leaves me thinking it's a new and dangerous day indeed. But Bruce Springsteen didn't change on September 11. Which is not to say he doesn't feel the awfulness as deeply as anyone else, just that his response as a musician never roams beyond the paths he broke open and mastered a long time ago. Thus we have the genuine but not unexpected triumph of a song like the "Nothing Man." Thus, too, after the attempted murder of scores of thousands of Americans, he gives us a song called "Let's be Friends."
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.