Bruce Springsteen's The Rising has become, as the tenth anniversary of the attacks that inspired it approaches, the closest thing we have to an official soundtrack to 9/11. It is the "soaring musical statement" of that day's impact on our national psyche, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's music critic. New Yorkers selected it in a poll conducted by WNYC as one of the top three records they want to hear on the radio on the anniversary. High school teachers are using it to evoke the visceral pain and confusion of that day for their clueless students. The problem with this is that The Rising is a terrible, bad, no-good record that cheapens us all.
Bruce Springsteen is among the nation's greatest living songwriters and has undoubtedly created some of the greatest rock records ever made. I love him dearly. But The Rising is a failure. It purports to document a nation's rupture and guide us toward salvation—"here the poet, not unlike the priest and community during Mass, opens a window in space and time for communion with the dead themselves: the dead who alone, perhaps, can transform the rage of the living and awaken in us a vision of something more than more of the same," is how one Catholic critic recently put it. You can almost feel the weight of Springsteen's duty on the record—these are his people, these firefighters. This is his backyard. A nation turned its weary eyes to the Boss, and he keenly felt the need to answer. But the answer was overwrought, grandiose, bombastic. He went big. We didn't need anymore big things.
Springsteen's grandiosity and bombast worked magic when applied to the backstreet tragedies of high-school dropouts on the Jersey Shore. The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run recast the mundane travails of ordinary outcasts as Shakespearian epics, and Springsteen's anguished lyrical stretches—"broken heroes on a last chance power drive"—served to underline his low-rent characters' essential dignity rather than his own purple tendencies. He was living beyond his means as a songwriter, but it's effective when you're taking life-sized stories and elevating them to myth.
It doesn't work the other way. And that's what The Rising is: Springsteen tried his Bard of the Jersey Turnpike routine on something that was epically large and unspeakably horrid, something that needed no mythologizing. The result is a mawkish assortment of cliches. There is blood—red blood—in the street, and emptiness in the sky, and hands are held, and spirits are touched. In the title track, Springsteen chose to place himself right in the center of the tragic spectacle, inhabiting the mind of a doomed firefighter climbing the stairs of one of the towers. The rousing, inspirational number is at the same time too on-the-nose and too off-key (does a dying man really grasp to a "dream of life... like a catfish dancin' on the end of a line" in his last moments? Just like a catfish?).
Contrast that with "Streets of Philadelphia," in which Springsteen obliquely and subtly addressed the AIDS crisis. There's no hammer in that song—no IVs, no pills, no gaybashing—just the pain of mortality and loneliness and the yearning for companionship.
If there's art to be found in the carnage of 9/11, it is at the periphery, among the ordinary and the living. Nobody alive knows what it was like to march to their death on 9/11. And a relative few know what it was like to lose a loved one on that day. Anthemic stadium-chants about those losses are empty exercises. But we all know the low-grade fear, the numbness, the confusion, the small heartbreaks. That's the territory that The Rising—or any album that seeks to do justice to that day as it was lived, as opposed to how it was televised—should have inhabited.
One record that did live there is the criminally overlooked Summer of the Shark, by Portastatic—Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan's other band. Released in 2003 to little fanfare, Summer of the Shark catalogs the small moments, the mundane calamities that reverberated out from Ground Zero. "In the Lines" (you can listen to it below) is about the near-universal experience of trying, and failing, to check in by phone on friends in New York City after the attack: "I got this woman on the phone, wrong number / Even she starts crying." A throwaway line in "Chesapeake"—"Songs we used to hate / Are making everybody cry"—captures more of what it was like to be an American in the weeks after 9/11 than all of Springsteen's empty churches and grasping hands and na-na-nas. [Full disclosure: I co-wrote a book with McCaughan.]
There are other 9/11 records of course: Stever Earle's Jerusalem, with it's "John Walker's Blues" about "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. There were the inevitable jingoistic country confections, and that horrible Paul McCartney song. The Rising is better than all of them. But it measures up neither to Springsteen's greatness nor 9/11's awfulness. If you find yourself this week needing to hear what you felt like 10 years ago, go listen to Summer of the Shark.
[Image by Getty.]