Bruce Dances in the Dark

As a fiction writer, I’m always looking for what Faulkner called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” But recently, the world poured on too much material. I’m not sure what to do with 9/11. Two boys down the street play whiffleball in their front yard without a father. He got up and went to work and didn’t come back. I can hear the tap of the bat on the ball from my study window. On the other hand, watching the Dow bubble burst has been good fodder. I read The Wall Street Journal , savoring stories like that of William Flynn, a barber in Dennis, Mass., who has seen his portfolio dwindle from $800,000 to almost nothing. Now he has to give cuts to make ends meet: razor cuts and flips and buzz-cuts and all the rest. It’s not that I like his suffering, it’s just that for a fiction writer, interested in stories, it’s good stuff. It’s the stuff of a Bruce Springsteen song.

Back in the day, Bruce Springsteen was a larynx channeler, drawing forth the twangy voice of the Dust Bowl, of Woody Guthrie (who in turn was doing his own channeling). His best songs were self-contained narratives of what the short-story master Frank O’Connor liked to call the submerged population-people on the edge, people with secrets to keep. The action was limited, but specific. People ran away from home. Cars crashed. Crosses were carried. Redemption was sought. The best songs resolved themselves-in the manner of short stories-by leaving us with a small sliver of the overall picture and a narrative nudge forward. If Turgenev came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” then Bruce came out from under Woody Guthrie’s denim shirt.

Mr. Springsteen was a working-class Catholic East Coast kid who eventually reached outward to the rural to find his subject matter. Bob Dylan was pretty much a guy from the hinterlands who came to Green Witch Village, as we call it out there, to find his scene. Bruce shape-shifted slowly-over the course of four records-until he found himself embodying the isolated regions of the working class. By the time The River came out, he was poised in dusty old country farmhouse interiors, singing of Ramrods, of redemptive trips down to the River, of Jackson Cage, of Cadillac Ranch. The bombast of his early work had fallen away and left us with something like unpolished silver, a voice that was darkly tarnished yet, with a few swipes of melody, revealed a shimmering purity beneath. When he recorded his masterpiece, Nebraska , in his home studio, the Boss had a voice that zeroed in on something deeply, brilliantly, perfectly authentic. His hoots and hollers, his laments about two brothers-one good, one bad-his mansions on the hill and his highway patrolmen were solidly, radically true. They went fully against the Reagan myth-making machine.

Above all, Nebraska was a blatant attempt at documentation. In a landscape scraped clear by postmodernism, the sound of authenticity is what matters. The credentials of the source seemed secondary to the vision. Now Nebraska is a cult record, passed on by word of mouth among younger fans, cited on lists of influences in Rolling Stone , and the subject of tributes. Bruce’s mode of redocumentation has now been embraced by the people who flocked to O Brother, Where Art Thou? , by those who accept Gillian Welch, and by most people who celebrate Lucinda Williams. In some ways, you can hear overtones of Nebraska all over the place: in Wilco’s brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot , and even in the White Stripes’ masterful White Blood Cells .

Then Bruce took the tight, echoey silence of the Nebraska recording, the incognito vibrancy of that singular howling voice, and reunited with the E Street Band to produce Born in the U.S.A. : a beautiful rendition of the American Spirit, the force of the working class, the pounding lament to Vietnam, and the paradox of hanging tight to those lame promises made, to a belief in the great American Sisyphean dream machine. A few days after 9/11, I put the old cassette of Born in the U.S.A. , twisted and worn, on the car deck as I drove past West Point, across the Bear Mountain Bridge, along the Hudson River. It was the perfect moment to hear it. I remembered walking the East Village streets, literally just off the bus from Michigan, a Midwestern bumpkin (there’s no other word) working a summer internship at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, listening to Born in the U.S.A. in my Walkman headphones, keenly aware of the wildly divergent nature of Bruce’s vision-the elegiac, mythic nature of his vocal intonations combining with the pre-gentrified grit of the East Village crossing my field of vision. I was a kid who was born and raised on Johnny Cash. My father played At Folsom Prison constantly. Cash was the only thing I remember coming from our big, warm stereo console. Even then I knew Cash was uncool. I knew he was an unhip Republican.

But I like to believe that I knew that one day Cash would become cool. In Michigan, my next-door neighbor was a lank old coot, an electrician at the paper mill down the hill; he came home drunk deep in the heart of the night and sang laments to himself. I’d wake up, press my face against the screen, gaze down at him on his porch to see his shadowy arm lifting the bottle. So it seemed natural-walking the New York streets for the first time-to hear Bruce belting out the stories I knew to be true. Anyway, I cared little for the concept of cool I saw around me in the East Village during the 80′s. It seemed shallow and cold. My idea of cool-unfashionable as it was at that time-was to know how to properly hop a freight without having your foot amputated.

When the news was announced a few weeks ago that Bruce had reunited with the E Street Band to record their first studio album in 17 years, a post–9/11 CD called The Rising , my hope was that he would follow Tom Waits and Dylan into middle age, reinventing his old sound and, in the process, producing his best work. My hope was that Bruce and the E Street Band would rock with tight narrative spirals, inturning and eternal, like the gyre in the Yeats poem, self-sustaining, outside the reductive noise of pop culture.

A few days ago, before I heard the entire CD, I went over to Borders in White Plains, bought the single “The Rising,” and listened to it driving back over the Tappan Zee Bridge. What I heard made my heart sink. Bruce sang but didn’t seem to inhabit his words, and he even seemed slightly hesitant, as if he hadn’t fully internalized the possible phrasings. The song seemed overproduced. As a power anthem, it felt muddled and cluttered. In the old days, Max Weinberg’s drums usually served as a kind of maypole of beats, steady and hard, around which Bruce wrapped his voice. Here there was little distance between my ears and the music. “The Rising” was inspirational in a vague way, ethereal and wide. The allusion is to something called the Rising; the command is that we should all come up to it.

I listened to “The Rising” several times, downloaded it into my iBook, and fed it into my head via my headphones. Eventually, I began to like the song. I didn’t love it, but I understood where it was coming from and what it was trying to do and the fact that it was written to inspire and that it came from the Boss’ heart. It was a new sound, but it was still Bruce singing, and I could deal with his calling upon me to lift myself up above the darkness. Whatever the Rising was, I wanted to be in on it.

The day the CD appeared at my door, I was on my way to visit my good friend Rabbi Jeff Hoffman. I put off listening to the record and went over to Jeff’s house. He explained to me that it happened to be Tishah, the saddest day of the Jewish year. He showed me an essay he had just contributed to a collection of kinot , poems expressing mourning, pain and sorrow. They are poetic responses to events such as the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The titles of the kinot speak for themselves and even sound like good song titles: “Seek, You Who Have Been Consumed by Fire,” “Oh That My Head Were Water,” “On This Night My Children Cry.” And in some ways, we agreed, The Rising is a collection of kinot , a series of poetic laments alluding-most of the time-to the events of 9/11.

There is no simple way to suffer, no easy way into the terror and loss that happened on a single day at the tip of Manhattan. So like all of us, Bruce had to struggle his way into the metaphors, search for the possible expressions, the right images that might-or might not-convey a sense of loss, and a way into redemption. Out of this search comes an unevenness that is reasonable and even in some ways hopeful. On the best songs there is a sense of inhabiting the pain, clear images and metaphors married neatly with the music, which at times moves experimentally forward. On the weaker songs you sense an urgency, a desire to become bardic, to speak to the audience in a hopeful manner. It feels painfully obvious that many of the songs were recorded in haste. They are devoid of precise images, and produced in a way that rearranges the old, classic E Street sound. Gone is the echoey space of Nebraska , the raucous roar of Born in the U.S.A. , and the austerity of The River ; long gone is the elegiac overlaying of Born to Run .

It’s hard to say what exact element is missing, but it seems to have something to do with composition, with the unity that once came from arranging several songs into a neat 45-minute vinyl disk, each song intricately talking to the other to create a perfect whole.

After several listens, I came up with this conclusion: The mix, produced by a new guy, Brendan O’Brien, is off-the sound has an awkward spatial sense, too immediate, too bright and too digital. In many songs, the subject matter is at odds with this brightness. When it works, it works, such as in the song “Nothing Man,” a narrative about a dead fireman (I think), with fine lyrics and a sense of Bruce really getting into the skin of the story, singing, “Around here, everybody acts like nothing’s changed / Friday night, the club meets at Al’s Barbecue / The sky’s still the same unbelievable blue.” “Counting on a Miracle” sounds close to the old E Street sound, with a few electronic flourishes and nice string arrangements (there are lots of strings appearing on this CD). Something Southern seeped in that reminded me of Steve Earle.

The song that struck me the most and that has stayed with me is called “Empty Sky.” It’s a deeply personal lament in which the sadness of the lyrics merges perfectly with the mechanical movement of the forward beat: “I want a kiss from your lips / I want an eye for an eye / I woke up this morning to an empty sky.” A few nights ago, I put “Empty Sky” on as I drove down 9W. My kids were in the back seat-we were going to an old ice-cream stand up near Stony Point-and coming out on the Honda’s feeble stereo speakers, the tune sounded perfect. As a matter of fact, most of The Rising benefits from being played over the Honda speakers, which tones down the shrill quality and gives it a dusky a.m. yellowish hue, moving Bruce’s vocals to the back a little bit.

In “Worlds Apart,” Bruce stretches, reaching for a new sound, and ends up with a strange yet highly familiar amalgamation of “Dead Man Walking” vocals mixed with world music. It’s Sting territory. It feels too safe to be genuinely new. But once Springsteen starts really singing, it rocks more than anything Sting has done since he left the Police. But this song, more than any other on the record, seems representative of the overall problem: Bruce is still Bruce, still singing as well as ever, but the music itself doesn’t serve his vision. This is the case, in particular, with the songs that are meant to be rockers in the tradition of “Hungry Heart.” One such song, “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin),” feels lacking in lyrical focus. Even fun songs need narrative details. “Hungry Heart” has one story line: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back.” That ” … Baltimore, Jack” is just enough to root the song in narrative. Once you have that, you can rock along to the rest without worry. You believe in the song. You go along with the story. Most of the weaker songs on The Rising lack that specific pinpoint moment.

Then there are two power anthems that wake things up: the aforementioned “The Rising,” and the opening song, “Lonesome Day,” which is bright and strong but also has an overmixed feeling, a sensation of being both too clear and too muddled at the same time. But ultimately, the failure seems rooted in the writing and the structure of the songs; there just isn’t enough lyrical complexity to keep things going over the long haul. The repetitive use of the phrase “Lonesome Day” lacks weight when it isn’t backed up by any specific details. Again, I longed for stories. I wanted screen doors to slam; I wanted fights in the back streets.

In a few places, the new technology melds just right with the song to provide forceful laments: A favorite is “The Fuse,” a song that stretches Bruce into new territory musically, yet has the kind of writing that he does best: “Down at the court house they’re ringing the flag down / Long black line of cars snaking / Slow through town.” “Mary’s Place” and “Further Down the Road” are both a return to form. The band kicks in like the old E Street; there is narrative at work. I hate to use the phrase, but these songs-aside from new sound production that isn’t quite right-seem like the old Bruce. A lonely edge rides beneath the songs, a taint of the sadness that must inhabit all good stories. Here we go, I thought. The fact that it sounded a little too bright and too digital can be forgiven.

When I was told friends I was reviewing The Rising , some shrugged and said they didn’t like Bruce anymore, or never had. Others told me they loved his old stuff, the Born to Run era, and some warned me to be careful not to trash it, because the diehard fans would come after me. But I think it’s the diehard fans-at least the younger ones-who are going to come down hardest on this new record. The older fans-like me-will be happy to have some new E Street material. We’ll program our CD players, do our own editing, and find the perfect play list. But the young fans, who have embraced Nebraska and his early work, who listen to Ralph Stanley and Johnny Cash, are going to pick The Rising apart. They’re used to new masterpieces by old fogies like Dylan and Waits. The Rising isn’t Springsteen’s masterpiece. It suffers slightly from CD bloat: 73 minutes is too much music. In the early years the Boss took his time, discarded the clunkers (all of which were released on the recent three-disk compilation, Tracks ) and shaped the production so that it was exactly right. He trusted the sophistication of his fans and the fact that he was a populist singer, not a popular one.

But if Bruce is anything, he’s heartfelt and sincere and brave and upbeat. He believes in the human spirit. He’s an optimist. In The Rising , we feel his sorrow over 9/11 and his desire to come out into the public again as our national bard; to represent us all at this time of need. But inherent in this task comes risk and stress. Our national bard of the working class has met his match in the empty-tooth gap of the Manhattan skyline, and in the dead firemen enshrouded in the American flag. Even the Boss is slightly at a loss for words. And who can blame him? Not me.

The howls and yelps of Born in the U.S.A. seem more apropos to our time: music painfully rooted in our national geopolitical nightmare in Southeast Asia, placed alongside songs that tell stories of the homeland: “No Surrender,” “Darlington County,” “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s a mystery the way art surpasses history and time. Bob Dylan released Love and Theft on 9/11, and just about everything in it speaks directly to the events of that day. A few months later, Tom Waits releases Blood Money , a record with a thumping lament of a song-a healing masterpiece-called “Misery Is the River of the World.”

Of course, none of this matters. Most Springsteen fans are just glad to have a new record. I’ll certainly be playing much of this CD as I drive to Michigan tomorrow, and already my daughter, age 10, is in love with the song “Empty Sky.” She knows what it means and sings along with it and loves the phrase “I woke up this morning to an empty sky,” because it’s the right phrase at the right time. We did wake up to an empty sky that day, and we still wake up to an empty sky, and that’s about all there is to say about it at this point.

Ultimately, I consider The Rising to be the first in a series of comeback recordings, a stepping stone of sorts, a way into the future. Now that the E Street Band is reunited with the Boss, our great working-class storyteller is about to return completely to form. He’ll give voice again to the stories of the submerged populace, who, by the time the next record comes out in a couple of years, will be nickel-and-diming their way through the post-Enron dust bowl. But for now, I’m still gonna be listening to The Rising , all summer, as I drive westward into the hinterlands.

David Means’ most recent collection of stories, Assorted Fire Events , was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.