bruce springsteen - tunnel of love (album cover)Springsteen’s most popular album, Born in the U.S.A., was recorded with the E Street Band and released in 1984, but Bruce disappeared into the wilderness in the late ’80s after recording Tunnel of Love in 1987 largely without his band. He divorced his first wife, model Julianne Phillips, and married his current wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, moving to Los Angeles and having three children with her. The E Street Band, which had performed as a functioning unit since 1972, ceased to exist for years at a time, the first such occurrence in Bruce’s career. The E Street band lay dormant for ten years, from 1989-1999, except for a brief get together in 1995. Springsteen may have been huge during the ’80s, but he was nowhere to be found during the ’90s, releasing three albums — Human TouchLucky Town, and The Ghost of Tom Joad — that had little to no lasting impact. (I have never listened to any of them.)

bruce springsteen - the ghost of tom joad (album cover)Those ’90s records are supposedly very inward and introverted, lacking the charismatic hooks and the confidence in the common man that has become his signature. They weren’t popular as a result, and I get the feeling there must have been a palpable sense that pop culture had passed him by. Grunge and g-funk had arrived by this time; alternative rock and rap, respectively, had invaded suburban homes to corrupt young white minds. (Or so people of my mom’s ilk would have you believe.) By the time Bruce released his bitterly political Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, interest in his music was at an all-time low, and the album was his first to not be certified platinum by the RIAA. But by the end of the decade, things were starting to fall back into place.

When Bruce got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he acknowledged that the previous ten years had been something of a waste. Bruce seized the opportunity to reform the E Street Band for a reunion tour, setting the stage for a full comeback. Then, one Tuesday morning in September of 2001, the unthinkable happened. It’s a wound I’m not sure will ever fully heal, as it was improperly treated by our country’s poor leadership in the wake of 9/11. The recently concluded war in Iraq and the ongoing war in Afghanistan have scarred this country far more than most people realize, I think. (Just the fact that we have gotten so used to having ongoing wars is quite troubling.) I was 13 when 9/11 happened, and I just remember it being a really long, really confusing day. I wasn’t that familiar with the Middle East and I didn’t know anything about Islam or fundamentalism. I remember going over to my Grandad’s house and watching the news for the rest of the day.

(It’s the only time in my life that every channel showed the exact same thing. You literally couldn’t watch anything else — it was nightmarish — and, really, there was no turning off the TV that day. Everyone was terrified the world was ending.)

bruce springsteen - born in the u.s.a. (album cover)Bush ended up making some kind of speech that night, the vast majority of which I have forgotten. (Sorry, George. You’re not the most eloquent president we have had.) And while 9/11 is one of the worst things to ever happen to this country, it did have one positive result: it gave Bruce Springsteen the inspiration to make great music again. He responded to the tragedy in the summer of 2002 with The Rising, a sprawling 73-minute opus that ranks among his finest works. He partnered with alternative rock producer Brendan O’Brien to give his songs a more modern/immediate feel, but make no mistake, The Rising is vintage Springsteen. He creates characters, fleshes them out over entire songs to make them feel unique and particular, and over the course of what used to constitute a double album presents a very full-bodied account, a testament, if you will, just like he did on Born in the U.S.A. two decades previously.

The Rising captures the mood not the morning of 9/11, but the morning after. Every song is a message from beyond the horizon, a beckoning to start anew. Part of what makes the album so magical is that The Rising also marks the first appearance of the whole E Street Band on one of his records since Born in the U.S.A., and it’s a welcome return, since their presence lends Bruce’s already substantial compositions real character. The most haunting song of the whole set is the penultimate “Paradise,” told through the eyes of a suicide bomber. “I hold my breath and close my eyes/And I wait for paradise,” Bruce sings. It’s a harrowing song, a grim reminder that even though there are several songs of a celebratory, even joyful nature — “Mary’s Place” especially comes to mind — we were brought together by something horrible.

That, of course, was as of July 2002, less than a year after 9/11. Now the truth is even harder to swallow, since our country is as divided now as it has ever been. Osama bin Laden is dead, the Iraq War is over, yet the War on Terror is far from finished. (In fact, I am hard-pressed to explain what exactly our mission in Afghanistan even is anymore.) I remember I attended an Obama rally in 2008 when I was a student at the University of Miami and “The Rising” was one of Obama’s campaign songs. I think that really demonstrates how The Rising has endured: we couldn’t move on from Bush without it.