It’s hard to believe now, but there was a period when Bruce Springsteen was still quite famous, but also deeply uncool. After achieving mega-stardom in the mid-’80s, Springsteen set about almost willfully dismantling it. He followed the blockbuster Born In The U.S.A. with the more personal, mature Tunnel Of Love. He dismissed the beloved E Street band and disembarked on a whole new life.
In the ’90s, Springsteen released the sister albums Lucky Town and Human Touch; the former has aged surprisingly well and has some Bruce all-timers, the latter is a career low point despite a couple gems. He toured solo behind the stark folk album The Ghost Of Tom Joad. He moved to California and focused on raising his young children. It was a time spent partially off-screen, but also one wandering an artistic wilderness. In a way, it was smart — there were no straggling declines from the heady ’80s, because Springsteen wasn’t even playing that game anymore. So by the time he made his roaring return to anthemic arena-rock in the early ’00s, the stage was set. Reunions, resurrections, resurgence — everything was on the table for what would become the era in which Springsteen solidified his legacy.
When Springsteen released The Rising, 20 years ago this weekend, it marked a long-awaited comeback on multiple levels. It was his first album in seven years, the longest gap he’s ever had. It was also the first full-fledged E Street Band album in 18 years, since all the way back to Born In The U.S.A.. If you are amenable to the idea that Springsteen runs on a different kind of fuel with his longtime compatriots, that he is at his best when they’re behind him, then there’s a neat arc — the long ascension of his peak years concluding with Born In The U.S.A., an epilogue in Tunnel Of Love, then a ’90s spent searching until his reunion with E Street, as a revitalized Bruce came back swinging with The Rising. It was also an album on which Springsteen spent a lot of time grappling with a post-9/11 America. That was crucial. Even more so than the E Street reunion, this established the path Springsteen would follow for another decade.
Springsteen had tried to bring E Street back already. In the mid-’90s, before the Tom Joad tour, they had a temporary reunion, in which they recorded some new songs (or, at least, new versions of leftover old songs). They made it official with the reunion tour in the late ’90s, and there were earlier attempts at a big comeback album. This didn’t materialize at the time. Maybe Springsteen struggled to produce the band himself, or couldn’t clear out some creative cobwebs.
The oft-repeated origin story of The Rising goes like this: A few days after 9/11, Springsteen had driven to the beach in Asbury Park. A stranger rolled down his window and yelled over, “We need you now.” The great tragedy of the attacks had proven galvanizing for Springsteen. While The Rising still featured several songs that pre-dated 9/11, almost all of them were completely recontextualized — the pleasant “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” landed completely different when surrounded by so much grief, “My City Of Ruins” turned from an account of a dilapidated Asbury to a prayer for all of America.
Musically, The Rising was brimming with ideas to the point that you could hear Springsteen’s new energy throughout. The same way glockenspiel once danced around classic Springsteen cuts, Soozie Tyrell’s violin became a prominent addition. Gospel tinged several tracks, underlining the album’s resilience. Some songs had glimmers of old-school Springsteen compositions, adapted in a more modern vernacular. Across its 15 tracks, The Rising had room to be a lot of different things: it had a song like “Worlds Apart,” which messed with Middle Eastern orchestration, and an old-school soul rave-up like “Mary’s Place,” which sounds like a nostalgic form of communion in the wake of collective trauma.
Springsteen tapped Brendan O’Brien as producer, who gave the E Street Band a muscular sheen — though, as with alt-rock producers like O’Brien, he also flattened the band into an inorganic murk. While the effect oddly hasn’t aged terribly on The Rising, it set a disastrous precedent that hamstrung a lot of 21st century Springsteen albums with tinny rock production. On a songwriting level, though, the sprawl of The Rising gave Springsteen a lot of room, and his long time away meant he had the goods — the gorgeously reflective “Nothing Man,” the snarling “Further On (Up The Road),” the rousing “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising,” and the hymnal “My City Of Ruins” were all standouts.
Mostly, The Rising’s themes arose directly from the period following 9/11. Springsteen wrote about firefighters, he wrote from the perspective of people who had lost their partners in the attacks. Rather than be explicitly political or even particularly dark, Springsteen leaned on small, human stories — or, on the other side, sweeping and broad statements of hope like the album’s title track. This wasn’t the exact same kind of big statement as Born In The U.S.A., in which Springsteen’s depiction of America still had small complications and nuances.
At the time, some critics took issue with Springsteen’s tone, like the vague lyrics in some of The Rising’s key tracks scanned as him actually falling into the sort of runaway patriotism people wrongfully accused him of with “Born In The U.S.A.” While not every song was so simple — “Paradise,” one of the most striking and underrated songs of Springsteen’s latter years, seemed to juxtapose the perspective of a suicide bomber against that of an American having lost a loved one in 9/11 — Springsteen had answered a call. People needed him now. And he, for perhaps the first time ever, wholly and actively embraced his role as an American bard and pop icon. He was there to give people solace, and he delivered.
This changed something in Springsteen’s writing. For the subsequent decade, he became a different version of the American chronicler he’d been in his youth. A string of albums became directly topical — Magic reckoned with the Bush administration and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Working On A Dream was a swell of sickly-sweet optimism at the dawn of the Obama era, and Wrecking Ball closed things out 10 years after The Rising with another Big Statement, this time on the Great Recession and fractured American promises.
In many ways, The Rising is reminiscent of U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, released about a year and a half earlier. These are albums where an aging artist returns to some understanding of their core ethos and aesthetic. Even if those albums don’t actually sound like the work of their heyday, they represent a rebirth by way of reclamation. From there on out, the artist modulates on an idea of themselves, with fewer divergences or surprises. (Even a theoretically sharp left turn like Springsteen digging into the old American folk songbook for The Seeger Sessions aligned with this particular era of his writing.)
In Springsteen’s case, there have been less diminishing returns than such a pivot might suggest. In his terms, “becoming an idea of himself” actually meant assuming a mantle in a way he had never quite been comfortable with in the past. During the ’00s, it felt like he was dialed in in a way rarely glimpsed with aging classic rockers; this neatly paralleled an era during which he was reclaimed as an indie icon and his influence was clearly felt in the music of new artists like Arcade Fire and the War On Drugs.
Earlier this year, Wrecking Ball turned 10. That marks the end of this stretch in Springsteen’s career. During those years, he came back and claimed his territory — since, he has oscillated between legacy work like Springsteen On Broadway and mulling over mortality on albums like Letter To You. There is still something powerful about The Rising, removed from its immediate comeback or post-9/11 context. At the time, Springsteen was writing music for a wounded America; its title track has lived on in that form, used on the campaign trail in 2020. But the title also holds a double meaning, representing Springsteen coming into his own as a soon-to-be elder statesman.
The album is 20 years old, but stands as the beginning of “new” Springsteen. Since its release, we have seen a self-aware Springsteen move through a few different iterations of his persona as an artist. But along the way, there has been something about him that is steady, present. After The Rising, Springsteen became the musician so many fans had always thought of him as, even as he thrashed and bucked during his pop zenith in the ’80s. Now, he’s accepted he has a certain type of voice — the voice we need to lean on in times of trouble.