When it comes to music inspired by Sept. 11, nothing looms larger than "The Rising."
Pop-music makers reacted to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in force. The immediate dispatches were visceral, and often vengeful — like Neil Young's call to arms "Let's Roll," or Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
Over time, as a horrific day begat a decade's worth of war, the geopolitical-minded music became more contentious. Country singers like Darryl Worley urged Americans to hold on to post-9/11 anger on "Have You Forgotten?", and Young refocused his rage for an entire album, "Living With War," in 2006.
The events of Sept. 11 led to plenty of noteworthy work, including Ani DiFranco's 2002 agit-pop poem set to music, "Self-Evident," which recalls the attacks on that "almost too perfect day," and Steve Earle's hopeful "Jerusalem" and American Taliban-inspired "John Walker's Blues." There's the Beastie Boys' album-length paean to New York City, "To the 5 Boroughs" (2004), and minimalist composer Steve Reich's "WTC 9/11," a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet that came out last week. There are small triumphs like "Tour of Duty," the soldier's story on Jason Isbell's 2011 album "Here We Rest," and larger ones, like "Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert," the live album by jazz sax great Sonny Rollins, recorded the week of the attacks.
But if you're talking about music and Sept. 11, you're talking Bruce Springsteen. "The Rising," released in 2002, stands apart for the scope of its ambition, and its typically Springsteenian acceptance of a job that needed to be done. The story goes that a few days after the World Trade Center towers fell, a stranger pulled up alongside the Boss and said, "We need you now."
"The Rising" could use a trim. A few songs, like "The Fuse," are perfunctory. But listening now, it's striking how well it has held up. The songs make contextual sense in the aftermath of 9/11, but the specific details that give them power are allusive. "Lonesome Day," ''You're Missing," and "My City of Ruins" are about the hollowing devastation of that day, but the language is universal, so the sentiments are by no means frozen in time.
The Boss had been floundering for the previous decade. But the assured "The Rising" — his first studio album with the E Street Band in 18 years — gave him a renewed sense of purpose. The sorrowful record kicked off what turned out to be his busiest decade of artistic ferment. And as that decade, the Sept. 11 decade, progressed, the day continued to impact his music. By the time the underrated "Magic" rolled around in 2007, he was writing about Sept. 11 in a new light, depicting the men who used the 2001 attacks as a pretext to take the nation to war with Iraq as cynical, deceitful tricksters.