When it comes to a pop culture icon like Bruce Springsteen, there’s usually a few career-defining moments that stand out. It’s easy to see that the release of his twelfth studio album, The Rising, is one of them. Inspired by the attacks on September 11, 2001, the album marks the end of a seven year music drought and an eighteen-years-long separation from the E Street Band, launching a new era in Springsteen’s career.
According to Rolling Stone, Springsteen was inspired by a stranger who stopped him in the time after the attacks and said, “We need you now.” The album blends a few previously unreleased tracks with songs written in direct response to the post-9/11 world, creating album focuses on grief, hope, and the human connections that define us.
“Lonesome Day,” the first song on The Rising, sets the musical and lyrical tone for the whole album. Opening on a foreboding note, the song ultimately builds up to a brighter sound to argue in favor of our own resilience. “Hell’s brewing, dark sun’s on the rise/This storm will blow through by and by…This too shall pass, darling, yeah I’m gonna pray/Right now, all I got’s this lonesome day,” Springsteen sings, illustrating the importance of hope in a world that seems a little darker than it did before. Country-influenced guitar is joined by a strong violin part, introducing a new bit of sound for Springsteen.
Parts of the album are more overt about the devastation that occurred on September 11th, including “Into the Fire,” which serves as both a tribute and a thank you to the victims that lost their lives with some very blatant imagery. The harmonies present echo that of a church choir, a common thread throughout the album. The Grammy-winning titular single “The Rising” goes hand in hand with “Into the Fire,” telling the story of a firefighter climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the attacks. The electric guitar riffs and gospel influences blend together to form an anthem to unite those affected by the tragedy–not in defiance, but in the willingness to face the tragedy together and ultimately move on. “The Rising” saw major radio play and was used by multiple politicians on their campaign trails, including John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
One of the strongest elements of The Rising is its handling of the lasting impression of grief on someone’s life. “You’re Missing,” “Empty Sky,” and “Paradise all describe longing for someone lost to tragedy by exploring day-to-day feelings that will crop up. Instead of being clustered together, these tracks are sprinkled throughout the album. What may seem like odd pacing actually makes another point about grief: it can sneak up on you at any time.
There are a few songs that concentrate on the love between two people rather than hope in the face of tragedy. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” is a bouncy, upbeat track brightened up by Soozie Tyrell’s violin and Clarence Clemons’s saxophone all about a couple’s optimism for their future. Taking a more flirtatious tone, “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” takes a jaunty angle at suggesting two people get together. The exuberant “Mary’s Place” happily emulates the feeling of a party to pay homage to King of Soul Sam Cooke’s “Meet Me at Mary’s Place.” These songs counterbalance the more serious songs with their vibrancy, illustrating why it’s so important for us to continue living our lives in the wake of tragedy.
The 9/11-centric album closes on “My City of Ruins,” a song that was actually written a year prior to the attacks. “My City of Ruins” was written about the deterioration of Asbury Park, a place near and dear to Springsteen. The descriptions of the city open to a sweeping repetition of “Come on rise up,” leaving off with an ultimately hopeful message. It’s easy to see why people took hold of this song in the wake of tragic events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Christchurch Earthquake.
Ultimately, The Rising earned Bruce Springsteen a Grammy for Best Rock Album as well as a debut at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. Considering its musical and greater cultural relevancy, it’s not surprising that The Rising is held up as one of the great Springsteen albums. It’s a little heavy-handed when it comes to the religious imagery and prayers at times, but it’s thoughtful in its handling of the full range of human emotion. The Rising’s deft handling of grief, exploration of hope, and overall message of human resilience make it an album that should often be revisited, especially when times are looking especially dark.