Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #99: The Rising (2002)

Best known for albums like Born To Run (1975) and Born In The USA (1984), the rocker known as 'The Boss' staged a comeback-of-sorts with this, his twelfth offering.
The Rising was Springsteen's first new album in three years. His previous offering, 18 Tracks (1999), had received mixed reviews, being as it was a single-oriented album designed for the more casual listener. In all the 1990s had been a quiet time for Springsteen, who had struggled to replicate the success, both critical and commercial, achieved by Born In The USA, which sold 15 million copies in the US alone and was used in the '84 election campaign of Ronald Reagan (the Republican Party neglected that the song is deeply ironic and is actually about Vietnam and ill-treatment of veterans).
The album opens with the light yet breathtaking 'Lonesome Day'. This is an ideal showcase for Springsteen's unique voice, which seems to not have aged in twenty years. Most of the album was composed after the 9/11 attacks, and the themes of beginning again, isolation and uncertainty which run through the whole album are encapsulated very well on this opener. And like openers, it draws you in, gets you hooked and won't let go.

The second of fifteen tracks, 'Into The Fire', is, like a lot of the tracks, more subdued, reminsicent of gospel in its lyrics, which make references to faith, hope and love in the rhythmic style endemic in gospel music. But before you can switch off - the song is a trifle long - 'Waiting On A Sunny Day' comes on with its solid drums and the world seems a brighter place. This is Springsteen at his rocking best, it's the kind of song you strut to, head held high and a smile on your face. 'Nothing Man' takes things right down, finding The Boss in heartfelt introspection. It's a little depressing in a kooky way, but perfectly executed on acoustic guitar and simple snare and refrain.

It's about this point that what started out as a great album transforms into a better-than-average one. On both 'Counting On A Miracle' and 'Empty Sky', the bottom falls out a little. Springsteen is clearly trying to continue the post-9/11 themes here - with anthemic rock on the former and explicit lyrics in the latter - but they never quite come off, and certainly the latter would have been better scaled down to an acoustic guitar, à la Nebraska (1982).

'Worlds Apart' is an interesting, and better, piece, not least because Springsteen and world music on the surface don't go together - but on the start of this they clearly do. But the rockier drums and guitar kicks in, along with a harmonica part which proves once and for all that only Bob Dylan can get away with harmonicas. The African influences is compromised for the rest of the song, but you come away without feeling irked by it.

'Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)' is a cheesy little number. There are three things wrong with this song. One, the introduction and break into the lyrics is almost a carbon copy of 'Lonesome Day', so no points for originality. Two, Springsteen's vocals are tired and he drawls through them like an ageing country singer. And three, the song sounds like it has been written by Mariah Carey - there are (apparently) reference to her hit 'Dreamlover' - and it sounds like it desperately wants to be a pop hit, never a good thing on a rock album or indeed any album. For someone who resents the fact that Ms. Carey even exists, this is enough to tempt me to stop.

Thankfully I stick with it, and the next track, 'Further On (Up The Road)', justifies my choice. Bearing no resemblance to the hit by Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton of the same name, it's a traditional hard rocker and no mistake. 'The Fuse' is a strange one - the opening with quick bass drum work sounds like the start of a nu-metal song, only for it to mutate into slow-strum ballad rock with unnecessary and irritating echo which does Springsteen's voice a great disservice. The Sam Cooke-inspired 'Mary's Place' features that most Zeppelin-esque of instruments, a mandolin, in a distinctly un-Zeppelin-eque song. It has a blues edge and is quite attractive at the outset, but it soon gets to repetitive to put down to jamming.

'You're Missing' turns on the sombre side again with piano and violin very prominent here. This time, as on 'Nothing Man' he pulls it off, but the difference is that 'Nothing Man' has something - je ne sais quoi - to hook you, while this sounds vaguely rambling. Thankfully, before you get sufficiently bored or irritated, a decent rocker comes along, in the form of the title track. It seems to be a feature of this uneven album that just when Springsteen gets so introspective and distant that you consider leaving it, the next track grabs your attention and you keep listening.

The final tracks, 'Paradise' and 'My City Of Ruins' are interesting as closer. 'Paradise' features synthesisers on a violin setting and has great vocals which seem near the bone and close to heart, with the rhymes reminiscent of blues with tinges of country and even subdued soul influences. 'My City Of Ruins' was recorded before 9/11 and listening to it, it is mildly prophetic but perhaps Springsteen's decision to include on the album is a sign that actual disaster was not all that the song is about.

The Rising is a good album for dipping into, with plenty of rockers that would have made successful singles and have proved popular when performed live. But while there are overarching themes, as discussed before, they are not always evident enough in the individual tracks and as such it is maybe not the kind of album one would listen to from beginning to end in one sitting. That is not to say that, had Springsteen done a 9/11 concept album, it would have been better or more compelling. It means only that he has reached a point at which his ability to churn out anthems and aggrandise the simplicities of real life may be escaping him, in the form of the introspection and self-reverence which comes to all rockers in old age.

3.67 out of 5

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