(Year two. The first anniversary is always hardest. You know it’s coming, you keep thinking about it, and you long to get it over with. The second is easier. You’ve hopefully started to put things into perspective. Perhaps found ways to begin moving on. The pain is still there, but it’s a different pain than it was a year ago…)

In the weeks and months following the attacks of September 11, 2001, there were countless musical tributes to the victims and relief workers. The Tribute for Heroes concert, the Concert for New York, Paul McCartney’s well intentioned but absolutely awful “Freedom”, and other ad hoc tribute songs were all immediate attempts to honor those lost and attempt to repair the country’s psyche. There have been numerous songs since that first wave that directly or indirectly deal with 9/11 and its aftermath (And some which have nothing to do with 9/11 but are widely thought to. Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags” most notably). I don’t think any of the acknowledgements have come close to what Bruce Springsteen accomplished with his phenomenal album The Rising.

At its surface, The Rising is a return to the classic Boss sound of the mid-80s, in large part due to his reunion with the E. Street Band. However, even a cursory attempt to listen to the lyrics reveals the stark, vivid imagery that immediately brings back all the memories of that awful day. If I knew someone who had died in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania that day, I don’t think I could listen to the album. Even without that connection, it’s still difficult to listen to at times.

The Rising is a truly brilliant album on several levels. It’s one of the most thematically cohesive, mainstream albums in many years. There are a few carefully placed songs written before 9/11 that lighten the mood temporarily, but even those are quite good. From start to finish there’s no question what Springsteen’s motivation was or what his message is. Often being influenced by a single, powerful event like 9/11 can be difficult, even for great artists. Springsteen strikes a careful balance between grief, anger, horror, and hopefulness and rebirth. The music plays a perfect counter-balance to the incredibly distinct and vibrant lyrics. If you never listened to the lyrics, you would hear rockers recalling Born in the USA tracks, and thoughtful songs that challenge the tone of the best songs from Tunnel of Love.

The Toby Keith’s of the world responded to the events of 9/11 by writing angry, vengeful songs full of narrow-minded, jingoistic nationalism. Springsteen, on the other hand, created a work that not only honored those lost in a tasteful, perfectly suited manner, but also unified and forced the listener to look ahead. The album builds to the final three songs, “The Rising”, “Paradise”, and “My City of Ruins”. “The Rising” which has been called by some Springsteen’s best ever single, is told from the perspective of a fire fighter entering the World Trade Center (see below). “Come on up for the Rising, come on up lay your hands in mine.” The buildings fell, but that doesn’t mean we have to. “Paradise” is a haunting song sung from the perspective of a suicide bomber preparing to detonate their deadly device. Finally, “My City of Ruins” serves as the dramatic, uplifting closing chapter. Bruce screams out, with a gospel choir behind him, “Come on rise up! Come on rise up!” over and over. After 70 minutes of being devastated by reminders of everything we saw and learned that day, sixty seconds put us back together and make us able and eager to consider the future.

The Rising will stand as a testament to all those who’s lives were affected by what happened on September 11, 2003. It just happens to arguably be Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album of his rich career. I’ve put some selected lyrics below as they can tell the story better than me. Be warned, if you’re already somber about the anniversary, these aren’t going to improve your mood. (For full lyrics, you can go to Springsteen Lyrics )

“Into the Fire”
The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me than you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire

I don’t remember how I felt
I never thought I’d live
To read about myself
In my hometown paper
How my brave young life
Was forever changed
In a misty cloud of pink vapor

“Empty Sky”
I woke up this morning
I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be

“You’re Missing”
Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall
Mama’s in the kitchen, baby and all
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you’re missing

“The Rising”
Can’t see nothin’ in front of me
Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back’s a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line

In the crowded marketplace
I drift from face to face
I hold my breath and close my eyes
I hold my breath and close my eyes
And I wait for paradise
And I wait for paradise

“My City of Ruins”
Now there’s tears on the pillow
Darlin’ where we slept
And you took my heart when you left
Without your sweet kiss
My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city’s in ruins

Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up!