By Mark Guarino
When the success of “Born in the U.S.A.” earned Bruce Springsteen his stripes as America’s favorite populist rocker, he wore them on both sides of his heart. Fans wanted flag-waving Americana and he obliged, mainly. He may have complained when the Reaganites famously misinterpreted the title song, but that didn’t stop him from performing it in front of a flag the size of an airport hanger, turning the chorus into a beer-raised battle cry while the refrain licked its wounds.
Since then, Springsteen’s patriot game softened and he felt more comfortable embracing his inner Woody Guthrie. On solo tours, he humbled “Born in the U.S.A.” into a twisted blues lament and with songs ranging from “The Ghost of Tom Joad” to “American Skin,” he challenged his audience with a kind of national pride that was about asking questions, not nodding off to easy answers.
“The Rising” (Columbia/Sony) follows suit. In stores today, it is his first in seven years. Written before and after Sept. 11, the songs mix together like a salve, never directly addressing what happened that day, but concentrating instead on the complex human drama that unfolded.
Hats off to Springsteen for giving up producing duties and handing them to younger gun Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine). O’Brien concentrates on the strengths of the E Street Band — obviously energized after its reunion tour two year past. The band’s super broad performance style is trimmed and woven into drum loops, steel guitar, fiddle, strings and other more cinematic textures. Together they make the death rocker “Further On Up the Road” lunge forward with twang and menace.
Springsteen’s renewed soulfulness as a singer radiates the songs shrouded in loss. “I need your kiss/but love and duty called you someplace higher/somewhere up the stairs, into the fire,” he sings (“Into the Fire”). Other songs take less obvious routes from the disaster, tackling survivor’s guilt (“Nothing Man”) and the thoughts of a suicide bomber (“Paradise”). “My City in Ruins” — the song he previewed solo on the telethon for survivors last Fall — is drenched in Roy Bittan’s church organ, recalling the rustic salvation of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek.”
The album’s pace falls apart when it hits the brakes to party on E Street. Full band raves like “Mary’s Place,” “Let’s Be Friends” and the title song dutifully visit all the group’s past trademarks — group choirs, fatty sax solos, overloaded Bible references, handclaps and do-wops — and it all sounds obligatory and worse, worn out.
Their draining antiquity is especially evident compared to a new song like the elegant, “Worlds Apart.” Forcing his fans out of their element by introducing Pakistani qwali singer Asif Ali Khan, Springsteen confronts tolerance head on, leading to a guitar solo in which he bleeds dry two notes of distortion. That’s when “The Rising” sounds most active — when it’s battling to build bridges at the same time they’re burning.
Bruce Springsteen plays the United Center Sept. 25.