The Poet Laureate of 9/11

Apocalypse and salvation on Springsteen’s new album.

Bruce Springsteen plays guitar and sings onstage.
Bruce Springsteen performs during the Academy Awards in 1996. Timothy Clary/Getty Images

Very few recent albums have been anticipated with as much hunger or greeted with as much rapture as The Rising, Bruce Springsteen’s new one. It is not only the Boss’ first studio album with the E Street Band since Born in the USA back in 1984, but also his first rock ’n’ roll record in a decade, and the first rock ’n’ roll record in a very long time whose release has seemed like a cultural event. Rock ’n’ roll, while not exactly dead, is decidedly middle-aged—no longer the dominant, organizing principle of youth-driven popular music. In a music industry given over to the various permutations of metal, hip-hop, neo-bubblegum, and the folk revival revival, rock ’n’ roll survives mainly in cut-price CD back stock and in the drearily repetitive playlists of “classic rock” radio stations. Chuck Berry, Springsteen’s great precursor, promised that the music would “deliver us from the days of old,” but more often these days it transports us back to them.

Though his best-known songs are staples of the not-quite oldies format, Springsteen, now 52, has remained a stubborn, if sometimes melancholy romantic, indifferent to both fashion and nostalgia. “The church door’s/ thrown open/ I can hear the organ’s song/ but the congregation’s gone” Springsteen sings in “My City of Ruins,” the last song on The Rising. His own congregation, of course, has remained remarkably steadfast in its faith. At his Madison Square Garden concerts with the newly reunited E Street Band two summers ago, Springsteen, midway through his medley of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Devil With a Blue Dress,” and other chestnuts, shouted and gesticulated like a fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher, invoking a “rock ’n’ roll baptism.” (Nothing if not ecumenical, he also called it a “rock ’n’ roll bar mitzvah.”) Since Born To Run, the album in which he first discovered his prophetic vocation, Springsteen’s lyrics have often given a religious inflection to the durable rock ’n’ roll themes of desire, frustration, and the longing for liberation, fusing Berry’s vocabulary of cars, guitars, and pretty girls with the language of apocalypse and salvation, purgation and redemption. And these are more than just themes: The dialectic of despair and triumph is built into the musical structure and aural texture of the songs themselves, which enact, and induce in their listeners, the very emotions their words describe.

The songs, indeed, may be the only concrete manifestations of the abstractions—faith, freedom, “Born To Run” ‘s everlasting kiss—they summon up. Consider, among many possible examples, “The Promised Land,” from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Its lyrics begin, after a low-key, harmonica-tinged introduction, with a particular character in a specific place—a “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert.” In the second verse, the character’s malaise builds into thwarted rage and then, at the end, into a climactic vision of purifying destruction, “a twister to blow/ everything down/ that ain’t got the faith/ to stand its ground.”

At this point, the song leaves the ground of realist narrative and ascends into metaphor: The storm is not an actual event in the narrator’s life, but the figuration of his anger and his hope. And what delivers the metaphor—what makes its grandiose, utopian imagery so powerful and vivid—is the music, with its thickly layered middle register (two guitars, two keyboards) carrying the voice through its litany of agony and defiance.

This is not Springsteen’s only mode, of course. It evolved out of the shaggy-dog hipster surrealism of his first two records and has always coexisted with the more hedonistic and contemplative sides of his personality. For most of the past 15 years, the oracular strain of Springsteen’s voice, at least in the recording studio, was all but silent. After Born in the USA, he preferred to bear witness—to his own romantic wounds (on Tunnel of Love) and to the travails of the forgotten and the dispossessed (on The Ghost of Tom Joad). He refashioned himself as the heir to Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, lonely avatar of a faded tradition of social conscience and left-wing populism.

And then there was Sept. 11, the overt or implicit subject of most of the songs on The Rising and one of the reasons its arrival has stirred up so much emotion. If any American artist could summon up an adequate, inclusive response to the events of that day, it would have to be Springsteen. This is not only because he has roots in the same Northeastern Catholic working-class soil from which so many of the local heroes of 9/11 sprouted, but because his songwriting idiom is almost uncannily attuned to the tangle of feelings—horror, grief, and rage, but also resolve, resilience, and solidarity—that that day left in its wake and is perhaps uniquely capable of clarifying them.

In the past, Springsteen has approached the disasters of history—Vietnam, de-industrialization, Third World poverty—obliquely and piecemeal, through the lens of individual first- and third-person narratives. While some of the songs on the new album adopt fictional personas—a lost fireman’s widow (“Into the Fire”), a rescue worker suffering from post-traumatic depression (“Nothing Man”), even a suicide bomber ("Paradise”)—the details of their lives have been almost entirely stripped away. There are no proper names and no place names (aside from generic markers like “Al’s Barbecue” and “Mary’s place”); instead, the language is spare and elemental, with the same simple nouns recurring again and again: blood, fire, rain, sky; strength, hope, faith, love.

This is only fitting. Unlike the unemployed dockworkers and immigrant farmers of Ghost of Tom Joad, we already know the names and the stories of many of the individual victims of 9/11. And in the face of a terrible and tremendous experience, too much eloquence is suspect, and we fall back on commonplaces. It takes more than mere sincerity to turn these utterances into poetry, but Springsteen, through the understated conviction of his voice and the precision of producer Brendan O’Brien’s arrangement, manages something close on “Into the Fire,”whose chorus expresses something every New Yorker has felt walking past the local firehouse since last fall.

May your strength give us strength
May your hope give us hope
May your faith give us faith
May your love give us love.

Similar words turn up in “Countin’ on a Miracle” and “My City of Ruins” (a song written before Sept. 11 to lament the decay of Springsteen’s beloved Asbury Park, N.J.). Repetition, psychologists say, is part of the work of grief, and over the course of the 15 songs on The Rising the reiteration of key words and phrases—now sung in agony, now in resignation, now in hope—has a cathartic effect. In the weeks and months after 9/11, people told and retold their stories almost compulsively and plunged again and again into their terror and confusion in a paradoxical effort to move beyond the experience and to keep it close. The Rising, listened to repeatedly—the only way true Springsteen fans know how—has a similar effect. It neither assuages the horror with false hope nor allows it to slip into nihilistic despair. 

But rock ’n’ roll is not all about grief and terror, and the song that has lodged most firmly in my head is “Mary’s Place,” an effusion of joy that comes two-thirds of the way through The Rising. Here, Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, overshadowed on much of the album by Soozie Tyrell’s violin, at last cuts loose, and the way the band stops short before plunging into the chorus is an E Street moment of pure (though highly disciplined) release the likes of which have not been heard on record for 20 years. “Meet me at Mary’s place.” I’ll be there, Boss.