Bruce Springsteen has a songbook that reads like a union membership log. He has written about cops, fire fighters, soldiers, road builders, steelworkers, factory laborers and migrant workers. Springsteen himself has held exactly one real job. For a few weeks in 1968 when he was 18, he worked as a gardener. But his gift is not horticulture. His great gift--the one that makes him the best rock 'n' roll singer of his era--is empathy. Springsteen doesn't know what a 40-hour workweek feels like, but he knows how a 40-hour workweek makes you feel. "If you roll out of bed in the morning," he says, "even if you're the deepest pessimist or cynic, you just took a step into the next day. When I was growing up, we didn't have very much, but I saw by my mom's example that a step into the next day was very important. Hey, some good things might happen. You may even hold off some bad things that could happen."
On The Rising, his first album of new material in seven years, Springsteen is again writing about work, hope and American life as it is lived this very moment. The Rising is about Sept. 11, and it is the first significant piece of pop art to respond to the events of that day. Many of the songs are written from the perspectives of working people whose lives and fates intersected with those hijacked planes. The songs are sad, but the sadness is almost always matched with optimism, promises of redemption and calls to spiritual arms. There is more rising on The Rising than in a month of church.
The Rising also marks the return of the E Street Band. The band--seven hardworking Joes in their 50s and 60s, plus Springsteen's wife, backup singer and Jersey girl Patti Scialfa--has always been a proxy for the Springsteen audience. The E Streeters don't eat meat sandwiches out of metal lunch boxes, but it's easy to believe that they could. Their 15-year absence from Springsteen's recorded music opened a gulf between the Boss and his core fans, one that The Rising seems intent on closing.
When Springsteen cut the band loose in 1987, Bruce was a major American somebody who had made his name singing about nobodies. But money shines a lot brighter than empathy, and after Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen wasn't just rich; he was loaded, and everyone in America knew it. Rather than continue as the wealthy rock-poet of the American grunt and risk being labeled inauthentic, Springsteen set out for new territory. As he put it in Better Days, a 1992 song, "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending/A rich man in a poor man's shirt."