Least to Most: Bruce – The Rising

“I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire…”

I’ve mentioned before that I think the negative reaction to Human Touch and Lucky Town gave more of a knock to Springsteen’s confidence than he’d be willing to let on; rather than follow Greatest Hits with a full blown reunion and band album he went the solo route and still wasn’t convinced that the Reunion Tour was a good thing practically up until the last minute. When that tour finished in July 2000, many assumed the next logical step would be to get the reconstituted band into the studio for a new album, presumably featuring some of the new songs they’d aired during that tour.

springsteen_the_risingBut… not quite. Instead Bruce spent roughly half a year logging up solo recording sessions, perhaps wary of going for another ‘rock’ album after so many years. Indeed, during press for The Rising he admitted hesitancy at returning to his ‘rock voice’.  Then, in March 2001, Bruce assembled his then core production team of Landau and Chuck Plotkin with Toby Scott recording and bought the E Street Band into New York’s Hit Factory. A handful of songs were recorded but the results… didn’t jump. It seems hard to think that with the band at full power a recording could be flat but it had happened before when he struggled with the sound on The River and Bruce has admitted that he realised he was now a better writer and singer than he was a producer and that modern techniques and equipment were simply unknown to him. He also felt that there was no unifying theme to bind the tracks written thus far into a ‘record’. If Bruce and the E Street Band were to move into the new millennium as anything other than an oldies touring act, he needed a new sound and a subject.

Then everything changed one terrifying and tragic September morning.

On his way home to his wife and kids that morning Bruce was sat at a stop sign. The driver of a car hurtling down the off-ramp recognised him, wound his window down and, as he drove past, shouted “Bruce, we need you now!” Bruce got the message, he just didn’t know how he could respond. Whether it was the call from the car or Bruce reading obituary after obituary mentioning victims being his fans*, but as he found himself glued to footage and, watching the firefighters making the ultimate sacrifice, climbing up the stairs, bidding goodbye to this world and stepping into the unknown… the songs started coming with ‘Into The Fire’.**

Some years prior, the president of Sony Records had mentioned to Bruce that producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, RATM, STP amongst many others) had mentioned a desire to work with him. The two connected, met up and Springsteen played him a couple of tracks he’d written. Now, O’Brien is a very hands-on producer, in search of the ‘song’ he’ll roll up his sleeves and get stuck in. This doesn’t always please the artists. By all accounts his sessions with Aerosmith in 2009 were fraught with tension between him and Tyler partly due to the frontman’s displeasure at O’Brien’s methods**. When Springsteen played him ‘You’re Missing’, O’Brien jumped straight in re-arranging. Initially he believed Springsteen was impressed, though he later found out The Boss wasn’t so happy at the idea but realised this might be needed: “At one point Brendan said, ‘Well, I think we should find another chord for this spot.’ I said, ‘Find another chord?! Wait a minute, now! Hold on, hold on! Those are the chords!’ But then I’m thinking that my job now as the producee, is to say yes.” They cut the demo and Brendan told Bruce “this is good, now go write some more”.

When recording on The Rising began in late January 2002 at Southern Tracks in Atlanta, it was out with the old and in with the new. Brendan O’Brien produced and mixed and recording was handled by Nick DiDia. In the past Springsteen album sessions were long and laborious. As Van Zandt, back in the band sharing second guitar duties with Nils Lofgren, Bruce would “write a bunch of songs, we’d record them, then, you know, hang out for a bit. He’d write another bunch of songs, we’d record them. What would happen is, we’d always do two or three or four records before one finally came out.” For The Rising the band would run through the song a couple of times and O’Brien would call time to record. Recording sessions for the last E Street Band album, Born in the USA, took over two years. Recording sessions for The Rising took seven and a half weeks.

urlThe first new Bruce Springsteen album I bought on day of release, The Rising is the sound of Bruce and his band embarking on a new era, re-galvanised and sounding tighter and tougher than before, songs focused and punchier than in over a decade. Bruce said of the change in sound that “I heard the way we sound right now. Today. And I said, ‘Well, that’s what we need to do.’ If somebody has all our other records, I want to make sure they don’t have this one. You can’t replace this one with some of the other ones.”

O’Brien’s touch isn’t as heavy-handed and obvious as a later producer would be, the altering of the band’s sound more of an update than an overhaul. His work seems to be more in finding the essence of a song, distilling it down and bringing different sounds to the forefront – the guitar tone on here eclipsing that of Lucky Town / Human Touch for example – and adding subtle touches to the overall palette.

The Rising never tackles the theme of September 11th directly, but it’s shadow can be felt across the album. With ‘Your Missing’ and ‘Into The Fire’ nine of the album’s fifteen tracks were written post 9/11 while ‘Nothingman’ and ‘My City Of Ruins’ fit the overall feel perfectly.

While not quite the finest record of the Bruce V2 era it’s certainly up there higher than most of his recorded output since and marked a fine return to form. I’m not a fan of ‘Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,’ nor am I that bothered about ‘Lets Be Friends (Skin to Skin)’ but I find it hard to find a fault with the rest of the album and it gets many a play. These are songs of loss, sure, but they’re also songs of finding strength in that loss. Songs of love, faith and power. Themes Springsteen had sung of throughout his career and, with the rejuvenation offered by The Rising, would go on to do so into a new chapter of his career.

Highlights: ‘The Rising’ ‘Into The Fire’ ‘Worlds Apart’ ‘Mary’s Place’ ‘You’re Missing’ ‘The Fuse’

*Bruce would reach out to the families of those victims, talking and consoling at length.

**’Into the Fire’ wasn’t finished just yet so come the A Tribute To Heroes concert it was ‘My City Of Ruins’, written previously for Asbury Park, that Bruce played.

***The band was already fraught with tension, Tyler was using again and were abandoned much to the chagrin of other members even after, according to Brad Whitford, O’Brien “bent over backwards to do whatever he could to make Steven comfortable”.

2016 Between Covers

Here we are once again amongst the closing days of another year. This is certainly one year I’ll be glad to see the back off. I won’t go off-topic here or cross that line into putting too much of the personal up here but I will say 2016 was an utter bloody farce of a year.

However, as the days before the fat man with a beard drops down the chimney diminish, it’s also that time to share what I think were the best things I read during 2016.

Once again – save for a few weeks where I simply couldn’t read / take anything in – I read a lot this year – some amazing fiction new and old and plenty of fascinating non-fiction. There are some I’ve started but not finished (I do aim to finish Life and Fate in 2017) and some that still sit on the To Be Read pile.

This list, then, is my take on the best written word I consumed during 2016 and is in no particular order with the obvious exception…

Fiction

IMG_7211Jihadi: A Love Story by Yusuf Torpov

One of the first books I read this year and one that’s stayed with me throughout. Echoes of great writers can be found throughout but it’s truly marked by the unique voice of Yusuf Toropov who here has written an important novel of our time. In my review I said that  its a rare thing to find “a book that is so unarguably great that you find yourself telling everyone they should read it regardless of their usual choice of paperback writer. Jihadi; A Love Story by Yusuf Toropov is just such a book.” I stand by that.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

A spy thriller set at the very start of the Cold War, as divisions and sides are drawn in a country still beset by the scars of war and trying to rebuild itself amongst the rubble. As much as I was fascinated by the historical element the plot equally gripped my attention and has sent me off down another path of reading with a couple of Cold War thrillers already en route to my letter box. Original review.

For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

For completely personal reasons this book would already make the top ten. It was purchased while spending ten hours waiting for a plane at Gatwick airport ahead of a family holiday where it was hungrily consumed. I’d been searching for Sebastian’s work in English and this, published this year, did not dissapoint. Beautifully written and deeplu insightful and evokative. The knowledge of the tragedies that lay in store for Mihail Sebastian only make it all the more poignant. Original review.

imageIn Her Wake by Amada Jennings

This book absolutely broke my heart. This book was so far from what I was expecting and so gripping that I honestly can’t see how it wouldn’t make this list. If everything you knew about yourself turned out to be a lie, that your whole life was built around a crime so devestating that lives have been ruined, what would you do? In Her Wake, is a real story of hope and courage. And, yes, the final revelation about Bella still guts me many months down the road.

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

Finding this book last year, and finally reading it in this, was such a joyous experience. I thought I’d read all that was available so to discover the stories in Notes on a Cuff was like stumbling upon gold dust. These stories, written in the early 1920s, show a real master finding his voice and revelling in the art and joy of writing. There are elements here that he’d perfect later in his career but it’s amazing to see just how brilliantly formed his work already was.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

On each occasion (and it’s always an ‘occasion’) that a Franzen book is published I can’t help but think it won’t be as good as his previous novel. On each occasion I’m proven wrong. Easily his most accessible and equally amongst his finest work.

The Bickford Fuse by Andrey Kurkov

I’ve written before on just how much I love Kurkov’s work. Something of a cross between Bulgakov and a Ukranian Vonnegut, he weaves near-absurdist, satirical novels of the highest calibre. The Bickford Fuse from what I can tell, is an earlier book than any he’s yet published and was written in the final days of communism. A look at ‘Soviet Man’ told through a series of somewhat connected stories and characters that, while clearly written by the same author, is completely unique amongst his work printed thus far. Ambitious, multi-layered and hugely rewarding to read.

IMG_9197Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen Favourite Fiction of 2016.

I read this in circumstances almost as perfect as possible yet I’m sure that had I read it in the middle of a cesspit as I sank down to the bottom I would have loved it just as much. Hugely gripping, deeply evokative and written without a spare word, Gunnar Staalesen is like the samauri of Nordic Noir – every masterful, well-practiced and skilful word strikes home hard. Staalesen is the master of his craft and it’s a big credit to the translation that there’s never any question of this when translated into English from the native Norwegian. Original review.

Non-Fiction

A book about the intelligence war was never not going to be my cup of coffee and when you factor in that it’s written by Max Hastings, The Secret War couldn’t get much better. Some real shockers in here and written in such a way as to ensure it never gets dull. It’s strange as it never caught my attention in school (more down to the education system at the time) but the Second World War has become the subject I’ve probably delved into most in terms of personal education. While I always enjoy a personal account – my interest being how normal people find themselves in extraordinary circumstance that I can’t comprehend rather than the ‘guns and glory’ stuff – the intelligence and spy / espionage war really fascinates me and this book is packed with detail.

In theory that should mean this would be the best NF book I picked up in a year but, then, this was the year that Bruce Springsteen published his autobiography.

Born To Run is the memoir every Bruce fan could have hoped for. He could’ve phoned it in. He could have gotten a ghost-writer to assisst and turn it into pristine prose. He didn’t. A deeply personal book, there’s more insight here than any such auto-bio I’ve read and all told in Bruce’s own voice. Revelations, inspiration and the salvation of music is all in here like one of his greatest songs. Original review.

 

Honourable Mentions…

The Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jónasson is one of the most compelling and rewarding additions to the thriller genre and this year’s Black Out and Night Blind were both excellent – but impossible to choose a favourite.

I delved deeper into the Jack Reacher series this year with a good five books under my belt including the new (in paperback) Make Me which was a real strong contender and shake up of the character.

Yann Martell’s books are always going to suffer in comparisons to his famous book with the tiger but The High Mountains of Portugal was a good effort, if a little wayward at times, with a beautiful, heartbreaking evocation of absolute grief.

Epithany Jones by Michael Grothaus and The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto really should be on this list too…

Least to Most: Bruce – Wrecking Ball

“After the crash of 2008, I was furious at what had been done by a handful of trading companies on Wall Street. Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans.”

After the relative mid-tempo doze that was his last studio album, a few years passed before a new effort from Mr Springsteen arrived and he certainly seemed more fired up and focused for the break. According the The Boss, it was on a drive home from a local bar that “Easy Money” came to him and the muse materialised for most of the material that would appear on this, his seventeenth studio album.

wreckingballI don’t necessarily dislike Wrecking Ball. There’s some very strong songs on here and it’s great to hear a change, sonically, in Bruce’s material. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is that doesn’t push this album higher up in my favourites and I’m not alone here, even Bruce mused “Wrecking Ball was received with a lot less fanfare than I thought it would be. I was sure I had it. I still think I do and did. Maybe my voice has been compromised by my own success, but I don’t think so.”

Personally, I think it’s down to the production. I think Bruce perhaps lost his nerve when it came to producing his own music – he’s said himself that when he initially tried recording something with the E Street Band post-reunion, the results were flat – hence calling Brendan O’Brien for The Rising. Unfortunately, he later called Ron Aniello and began a partnership that has resulted in some of my least favourite output.

The songs that make up Wrecking Ball are strong and gritty. The first half of the album specifically tackles the economic blight that followed the 2008 crash. Yet rather than give these songs a good, gritty recording or even bare-bones them and let the lyrics speak for themselves, they’re covered in ‘ticks and gimmicks’ – IMHO.

I know that he’d just produced Patti Scialfa’s Play It Where It Lays but I still to this day wonder what it was about his back catalogue (Lifehouse, Jars of Clay, Candlebox) that made Bruce place his music in Ron’s hands. The stapled-on soul / gospel parts of ‘Shackled and Drawn’ (“I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight, you know we got to praaaay together”) and ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ rub the wrong way, as does the overly prevalent use of drum machines / loops. It seems to jolt too much with the force of the more organic sounding music that tears along like some pumped, stadium-ready, celtic folk-rock dervish and suits the anger that Bruce is trying to convey.

Take the kick-off ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, does it need the echo on his voice?

This album more than any since shows the influence of the Seegar Sessions in terms of instrumentation – there’s a real Celtic lean to a the opening clutch of songs but with a lot more punch and wallop. At times it brings to mind the Dropkick Murphys – ‘Death To My Hometown’ especially – and he sings with a lot more urgency and earnestness than he had on Working On A Dream.

Regarding the choice of music Bruce said he “used a lot of music from the 1800s and the 1930s to show these things are cyclical. The album is resonant with history.”

Resonant with history is a good choice of phrase. There’s some of his own on here with the revisiting of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’* and the recasting of ‘Wrecking Ball’ into an album track.

Now… this is something that a lot of people have raised issue with and I kinda understand their points. ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ has been slighted in its handling. Yes, it’s Bruce’s song and up to him to do as he sees fit with it but; this was an E Street Band song, 14 years old at the point it was recorded and had been a staple of almost every show since the reunion tour on which it made its début . Steven Van Zandt considered it “a wonderful reintroduction of what has become a very different E Street Band. We just opened with it the other night, and the whole fucking stadium took off.”

Live it was a sprawling epic, a soulful, uplifting song of hope – it’s also my go-to first play if I haven’t picked up my guitar for a bit – and I admit I did often wonder what it would sound like if the band recorded under a producer willing to tighten the bolts up a bit. Unfortunately the band didn’t record it. Only two members feature, with the remaining parts played by Bruce and Ron and session drummer Matt Chamberlain replaces Max Weinberg. Given that they’d played it nightly for over a decade prior and then had to play it on the subsequent tour, I can’t help but wonder how the band felt on that one. Max thumps the shit out of the drums on this live, especially. Then it was decided to fade it in and out around more ‘stapled-on’ gospel singers (I have nothing against gospel our soul singers, if I need to make that clear) singing parts of “People Get Ready”. To me it was as if Bruce was trying too hard to frame his music / emphasis the points it was trying to make.

Here’s both versions for comparison:

Those that did make the cut were Van Zandt’s mandolin and Clarence Clemons, which brings me to another point…It was while recording Wrecking Ball that Bruce had been trying to reach Clarence to arrange a recording session. Specifically the sax solo on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’. When Clarence did get back to Bruce he was feeling ill and it became the first and only time in which the Big Man bowed out of a scheduled session. No worries.. we’ll pick it up when you’re feeling stronger. Bruce went away on holiday with his wife and it was then that he got the call that Clarence had suffered a massive stroke. He passed not long after, something Bruce refers to as “like losing the rain.”

In the period that followed Ron Aneillo assembled the sax part on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ from recordings of the live version. When Bruce heard it he said it was though Clarence was in the room. It remains the song’s highlight. I just feel it was a missed opportunity to capture the punch that the band bring to it.

Wrecking Ball‘ was the other ‘old’ song to grace the album it gave it its title to. It had been written on the eve of the E Street Band’s final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009, after which it was to be tore down. As such it was a ‘road song’ written for the band. To quote Mr Van Zandt again: “They tend to take on a very comfortable arrangement because they’re being written for the live band and with the live band. It’s not like he’s going home in between and writing it and demo’ing it and showing it to the band later. He’s playing us the song backstage on his acoustic guitar, just like the old days. Songs like that take on a different sort of immediacy because they’re literally being worked up at soundcheck”.

It’s a strong song that’s become about much more – facing the hard shit that life can throw and actually daring it to bring it on. It’s the closest to the E Street Band playing as you’ll find – though Van Zandt himself doesn’t feature. I think at this point he was likely busy with ‘Lilyhammer’ (a show I do wish would make a return).

I mention the lack of E Streeters for a couple of reasons. First is that I think with Wrecking Ball, Bruce found the key to making ‘rock’ music with musicians outside of the band and still having it been accepted by his audience. That key being; feature some of them on a couple of tracks and tour the album with them. There’s no Garry Tallent or Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren found his plectrums half-inched by Tom Morello. They’d all play the arse off of them on the following tour though.

The other reason is that Bruce has a new album in the works – well, it’s been delayed by the steady expansion of the current E Street tour in support of The River‘s box set. Both Bruce and Jon Landau have been at pains to point out that it’s a solo album and not an acoustic one, that it is “in fact, a very expansive record, a very rich record. It’s one of Bruce’s very creative efforts”. Given that he’s also been working with Ron Aniello (sigh) on it, Wrecking Ball‘s sound and lineup perhaps serve as the biggest indicator as to what, sonically, we might be in for.

Some criticism lobbed at Wrecking Ball accused it of being top-heavy and sonically uninteresting. For me the album gets better after ‘Jack of All Trades‘ (tepid, Bruce by numbers with added Morello). Aside from those already mentioned, songs from this point are solid – ‘Rocky Ground’ brings to mind the groove he mastered with ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and features a Springsteen-penned rap, ‘This Depression’  originally considered to reference the economical could now be seen as Bruce praising Pati during the large depression of his own he was going through and the strange, ode to the dead that is ‘We Are Alive’:  “A party filled with ghosts. It’s a party filled with the dead, but whose voices and spirit and ideas remain with us.”

For my money – lose ‘Easy Money’, ‘Shackled and Drawn’, cut some of the effects and promote ‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly of a Whale)’ and  ‘American Land’ from bonus to full-album track and you’d have an absolute belter of an album with more of a sonic palette and a real barn-storming closer. Indeed, it’s how it plays on my iPod. But, then; everyone’s a critic….

Highlights: ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, ‘Death To My Hometown’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Rocky Ground’, ‘This Depression’, ‘We Are Alive’ and the bonus tracks

Not-so Highlights: ‘Jack of all Trades’

*’Land of Hope and Dreams’ was one of two new songs featured on the reunion tour Live In NYC album alongside ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’. The newer studio version of the latter was also cut during Wrecking Ball sessions and would later have Tom Morello dubbed onto it for release on High Hopes. Bruce, at the time, said that he wanted to give these live staples a more ‘official’ release but these are both songs that, I think, were better left – like ‘Seeds’ – in their original versions.