News of a new Bruce Springsteen album, with the E Street Band, due in October excites a good number of us. His last one, without the E Street Band, Western Stars was damn fine after all.
Though we’d be excited about something new even if it had been a dud last time, let’s be honest.
Anyway, talk of a new inevitably takes our minds back to some old and last week’s September 11 commemorations make an obvious choice for a Wind Back Wednesday wayback machine trip: 2002’s The Rising, released less than a year after the attacks.
The popular view among fans is that this was the great late period Springsteen album, a perfect example of moment, need and artist coinciding (even if we discovered much of the record had been written pre-September 11). I would argue that Devils & Dust a few years later is better still – and that really was the last great Springsteen album, though Western Stars made a strong argument for inclusion in the debate at least.
While we wait, we can continue that debate. For now, the solace and stirring power of The Rising.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN The Rising (Columbia/Sony)
Set aside the murderous actions and ask yourself if you can make sense of the despair, anger and questioning that flow from September 11 and the search for reasons to hope.
Bruce Springsteen is willing to try.
Apart from the deliberately rousing title track (descriptions of firefighters and police heading up the World Trade Centre stairs: "Can't see nothing in front of me/can't see nothin' coming up behind"), Springsteen deals with the aftermath of the terrorist attack, though not necessarily in ways you'd imagine.
For example, in the meditative Nothing Man, a "hero" of the rescue has no answer for his emptiness, no response to both the adulation ("I never thought I'd live to read about myself in my hometown paper") and the normality ("Around here, everybody acts the same/Around here, everybody acts like nothing's changed").
Later, in Worlds Apart, Eastern percussion and backing from a Qawwali (Pakistani devotional music) singer merge with a thunderous E Street Band as Springsteen looks for connections, bridges, ways to "let love give what it gives".
While you may expect songs of sadness, it doesn't prepare you for how effective they are here. You're Missing, a slow dance with violin, piano and slide guitar entwined, doesn't try for the poetic imagery Springsteen deploys elsewhere, settling instead for simplicity: "Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair/Papers on the doorstep, but you're not there ... Everything is everything, but you're missing."
The beautifully serene Paradise could have come from his album The Ghost of Tom Joad: sparse and vast like a desert sky, it has little more to it than a guitar and slow organ chords over which Springsteen's gruff voice recites. But in its own way it is as devastating a farewell as Nick Cave's Into My Arms or Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack.
But despair isn't the only response. In the hymnal soul of My City of Ruins, Springsteen closes the album with the kind of rich salve that faith brings, without the treacle of religiousness.
There's an echo of it in Into the Fire, where a National guitar, glockenspiel, cello and more flesh out a yearning for some value to be found in sacrifice. You don't have to believe in a higher power to draw strength from it.
And then there are the two songs that offer another reason to hope: the certainty that someone will fall in love again tomorrow, while tonight maybe someone will play an old record and have fun.
In Let's Be Friends, a lazy summer feel, doo-wop vocals in the middle eight and lyrics that aim to slowly seduce so "maybe we could get skin to skin", have an easy joy that might be teenage in lesser hands. There's more pleasure in Mary's Place, even as it opens over acoustic guitar with images of a dark heart and "eleven angels of mercy sighin' over that black hole in the sun".
With a Born to Run-era chorus that bursts out like a car accelerating on an open road, Springsteen throws in images of furniture on the porch, familiar faces, the needle dropping on a favourite record and, with a head thrown back, says we'll be waiting for you, "Let it rain, let it rain/meet me at Mary's place, we're gonna have a party".
There are a few songs on this long (15 songs; 75 minutes) album that tread water but there's too much that reaches for and attains beauty to let that matter.