Thinking in Song
At FPR, Gregory Butler has written a nice discussion of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. This album has been one to which I’ve returned with time, and my opinion of it has grown, slowly but steadily — it may well be the Boss’ best. The reason for this is not that it successfully eulogizes September 11, 2001, but that, while grounded in that day and its aftermath, it is not strictly “about” it.
The titular “Empty Sky” of the album’s seventh track is not, for example, simply the void left by two absent skyscrapers — or the eerie quiet of skies used to jetliners. There is also the emptiness of the sky — the heavens — the traditional home of God (or the gods). The “blood on the streets,” like Abel’s, is seen “cryin’ from the ground,” but here, in the aftermath of tragedy (any tragedy) God is not in His place in Heaven.
Springsteen is a songwriter, not a theologian, and so doesn’t attempt any explanation. That empty sky could mean God does not (and never did) exist; that God is in eclipse (or hidden his face); that God has, somehow, died; that God is unjust. &c. It could be heard not even as a comment on a divinity, but simply that of a universal order. Whatever the case, there is murdered blood crying out, unheard, for justice — whenever a sky goes empty in the wake of tragedy, it seems an injustice.
The singer totters on the precipice between Leonard Cohen’s alternatives of “go[ing] crazy” or “report[ing]” and manages to achieve the latter. He sees an empty gap in the skyline where destruction has occurred, and tells us this is so. But the destruction itself leads him to perceive a different, vaster emptiness behind the skyline: how does a just universe allow for such things to happen in the first place? The question, only implied, is rhetorical. He wants less to know why than how to respond — but he’s stuck on the alternatives of “a kiss from your lips” or “an eye for an eye.” The empty sky, however, has made the former impossible and shown the latter insufficient. But reporting — even if all he has to report is his uncertainty of how to respond — may give him the beginning of a response.