What makes a rock 'n' roll song great? Well, there's a bunch of things that come to mind -- a killer riff, or haunting lyrics. The one that gets overlooked is context. Bands that have been around the block a few times -- two that I mentioned in a post the other day were R.E.M. and the B-52s - can continue to make great music into their Medicare years, but they can't easily recapture the way we felt when we heard them that first time, and they suffer for that. Great music is also associated with a certain time and place. Would a song like the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" have the same power if it had been released in 1985 instead of 1965, in between the JFK assassination and the Gulf of Tonkin, on the cusp of a sexual revolution? I think not.
I never thought Bruce Springsteen would get his context back; the '90s were a bit of a lost decade as he tried to figure out whether he belonged in Hollywood or New Jersey, with the E Street Band or without it. Then came an American tragedy -- 9/11. In "The Rising," released a year after the attacks, Springsteen produced arguably the only great work of art to rise from the sorrow and ashes of the World Trade Center. In the haze that followed, 9/11 became a rallying cry for politics and for war -- sometimes appropriately, often not -- but Springsteen and his songs on the collection also called "The Rising" brought 9/11 back to its very core, as a tragedy of human loss and love. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I heard the song "The Rising" on my car radio -- it was smack in the middle of the Platt Bridge -- and by the time the chorus climaxed I knew that Springsteen was back. He and the band made a couple of other excellent CDs, especially 2007's "Magic," but "The Rising" and the album's other songs like "My City of Ruins" and "Lonesome Day" will always define the decade for him, as it should. It's not the best album ever from a man who gave us "Born To Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and all the rest back in his -- what else could you call them? -- glory days, but in a weird way, "The Rising" was Springsteen's record of a lifetime.