It seems almost like a setup for disappointment. The Rising is Bruce Springsteen's first full album of new material since 1995's The Ghost Of Tom Joad, a middling folkish offering from the heart of a decade of so-so work. It's the first full-length studio disc he's recorded with the E Street Band in nearly two decades. It follows a world tour whose sweeping success seemed to demand that Springsteen reassume his position as a combination of rock star and secular saint. And, most difficult of all, it addresses the Sept. 11 attacks at a time when the rest of the world has yet to sort out its feelings about that day. In short, Springsteen has a lot of expectations to meet. Any suggestion of a musical crisis of confidence, however, vanishes with the album's first chord, which picks up pretty much where Born In The U.S.A. left off 18 years ago. As for Springsteen's ability to address so large a topic as Sept. 11 with so small a thing as a rock 'n' roll album, The Rising confirms that, too. From the start, his capacity for empathy has been his greatest gift as a songwriter, and here, that gift stretches to include everyone from Sept. 11's victims to those they left behind, as well as an anonymous suicide bomber in an unnamed marketplace. Whatever the bigger picture, Springsteen knows that we can only see tragedy from ground level, which is where the only truthful songs come from. Two moods mix and mingle on The Rising: bottomless sadness and hard-won hopefulness. It's hard to think of a songwriter other than Springsteen who could convey both without one neutralizing the other. "I want a kiss from your lips / I want an eye for an eye," Springsteen sings on "Empty Sky," and those contradictory impulses sum up the messiness of the emotions involved. A song of abandoned faith, "Empty Sky" may be The Rising's most despairing moment. Mostly, sadness comes hand in hand with resignation, as on "You're Missing," whose protagonist finds absurdity in the "shirts in the hall" and "shoes in the closet" that can't reflect the loss of a loved one. The album also strikes another delicate balance, between somberness and spiritedness. A few nouveau touches by producer Brendan O'Brien aside, this is unmistakably an E Street album, and Springsteen takes full advantage of his band, particularly on up-tempo tracks like "Further On (Up The Road)," "Lonesome Day," and "Countin' On A Miracle," each a mix of woe and unlikely optimism, like the album itself. The Rising ends with "My City Of Ruins," which began life as a tribute to Springsteen's downtrodden Asbury Park, became an unofficial Sept. 11 anthem, and transcends both. It's quintessential Springsteen, a portrait of devastation met with the faith that the situation will change, maybe starting with the song itself.
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