New album has fans dancing in the dark

The first CD from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 18 years hits stores Tuesday

Tom Petty wasn't addressing Bruce Springsteen fans when he said the waiting is the hardest part, but he might as well have been.

The Boss's minions have waited – and waited and waited – for the moment when Bruce would summon his beloved E Street Band back into the studio for a full-scale recording.

When he reunited with them for a monumental tour three years ago – which had fans criss-crossing continents to catch as many shows as they could – he hinted that more collaboration was coming.

And finally – 18 years since their last group album (and seven years since "The Ghost of Tom Joad," Bruce's last album of new material) – Springsteen and the E Streeters are hitting record-store shelves together again with Tuesday's release of "The Rising."

Though his record label and publicists have treated this 15-song album like a top-secret document, not even sending copies to critics for fear of prerelease piracy, a couple of tracks have been loosed via AOL (and the title track as a CD and radio single), and listening parties were held in several cities at which eight tracks were carefully unveiled. Each song, including the title cut, was played once, its lyrics projected onto a large screen.

After hearing those tracks in Pittsburgh, local fan Jeff Kearney characterized them as "more somber" than the sometimes raucous, rollicking rock fans fondly remember from the old E Street days. The songs are indeed more reflective, and much more spiritual than a younger man might have written, but Bruce is now a middle-aged father with far more on his mind than cars and girls.

With "The Rising," Springsteen has taken on the added responsibility of trying to verbalize – both personally and more universally – life in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Detroit-based freelance music writer Gary Graff, who has heard the entire album, reported, "It's a really good album and a really genuine album.

"It is the kind of record that a 50-year-old, socially conscious family guy with a real track record for having a good take on the big view of life experience ... should be making right now."

"Lonesome Day," for example, sounds like vintage Bruce, but with a dignity borne of age. "Into the Fire," a potential new anthem, is one that caused Mr. Graff to characterize the disc as "a lotta God, a lotta gospel."

"You're Missing," like most of these songs, is filled with a sense of loss. It closes with the line, "God's drifting in heaven/ devil's in the mailbox/ I got dust on my shoes/ nothing but teardrops."

Though helmed by a new producer, Brendan O'Brien, "The Rising" has its semiclassic E Street moments, as on the stadium rocker, "Mary's Place." There's also the heavy sexuality of "The Fuse," with Max Weinberg double-thumping a bass-drum rhythm, and "Nothing Man," a softly sung common-man song about a waning life.

"It's not going to make us forget about 'The River,' or 'Darkness (on the Edge of Town),' or 'Born to Run,' but it does feel like a very sincere and appropriate album," Graff said, noting that Springsteen was able to strike a difficult balance, delivering emotional reactions without being maudlin. He also was able to deliver clear-eyed observations without statements that might be regarded as politically inflammatory.

We've always looked to artists to help us understand difficult times, which could be another reason "The Rising" has been so hotly anticipated. We need our trusted troubadours to offer us insights or soothe our sadness. Kearney said

Springsteen and John Mellencamp are able to capture our nation's moods and "symbolize America" better than any other musicians.

Nashville-based writer Tom Demalon agrees. "He represents this country – the good, the bad, and the indifferent – better than anybody, including Dylan."

Pittsburgh native Tony Pirollo can't wait to hear the album and see the band onstage again.

"I'm so happy that Bruce is back with the E Street Band, recording and touring, because I think they're the greatest," he said.

On Tuesday, the waiting will finally be over for him and millions of other fans eager to hear what Bruce has to say – and how it sounds – this time.

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