But there's a paradox at play that made O'Brien's work on The Rising all the more tricky. In order to reach a mass audience, one supposes, Bruce needs a sound to compete with the Papa Roaches and Eminems. But what the public most needs now is for Bruce to just be Bruce. After all, he's the guy best positioned to soothe the wounds of 9-11 with his ointment l one part hard truth, three parts all-American hopefaith&dreams.
So what's a superstar knob-twiddler to do? With The Rising now out there for the healing, it's clear O'Brien has walked that tightrope deftly.
Most tracks on The Rising offer some barely shrouded perspective on 9-11 -- from the heroes, the perpetrators and, mostly, the loved ones left behind -- and those songs that don't fit in directly at least don't get in the way. It's an album of simple songs, like all Springsteen albums have been since he began self-editing his beat-poetry in the late '70s. More than that, the record makes little attempt to sound like anything other than the comfort food Bruce knows his audience wants from him -- and that, post-9-11, he probably feels duty-bound to deliver.
Songs tend to either echo his own classic sounds -- "Mary's Place" even lets loose his first "Rosalita"-style workout since who-knows-when -- or take shelter in classic soul ("Let's Be Friends," "My City of Ruins"), or bask in more rootsy touches (fiddles, slide guitar) than we've heard from the E Street Band.
Through it all, O'Brien's hand can be heard in subtle but important ways -- for example, on the album's most stirring track, "Into the Fire." Its opening, dressed up in Nils Lofgren's dobro and acoustic slide, is anything but modern. But, chugging alongside the guitar is a syncopated drum shuffle juiced up to vaguely resemble a trip-hop beat. That is, Max Weinberg's real drums made to sound like fake drums trying to sound like real drums. (Twenty years later, Springsteen discovers postmodernism!)
"Into the Fire"'s drum production is just a detail, but these days, such ridiculous hair splitting l e.g., the amount of echo on a snare l is what can separate commercial-radio readiness from airwave exile. And exile would be a shame, because "Into the Fire" is the kind of gem that appeals to the teary sap in us all; but it's also smartly written -- with its mournful conflation of fire as passion and destruction, love and loss. It's a gospel prayer, one ostensibly delivered by the lover of a rescue worker who never returned, and if the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation doesn't adopt it as their theme song, that's their loss.
Here, and elsewhere, O'Brien shows surprising restraint with the production. God bless the local boy, but after all, he's the guy who shoulders a nice chunk of the blame for shaping the caveman sludge that passes for modern rock these days. Thankfully, Little Stevie's guitars have not gotten all Stone-Temple-Piloted on us. At worse, it's possible to hear O'Brien's impulse to fill empty soundspaces in The Rising's lush, string orchestrations (featuring, among others, ASO cellist/ conductor Jere Flint). And, since the strings on songs like "Lonesome Day" and "Waitin' On a Sunny Day" generally take the place of those cheesy synths that infected Born in the U.S.A.-era Springsteen, they're quite welcome here.
As for The Rising's most jarring stylistic development -- "Worlds Apart"'s qawwali interjections by Pakistani vocalist Asif Ali Khan and his group -- it's not clear O'Brien had anything to do with that one l at least not unless he was channeling Sting through his studio headphones that day. Even here, though, the expansion of Springsteen's sonic vocabulary doesn't prevent the song from being recognizably Bruce. In fact, the song's phrasing, chord structure and "li-li-li" musings are typical Springsteen -- and having them adorned in Eastern garb only proves the worlds may not be very far apart after all.
Such is the power of American cultural forces. Like Elvis, whose character can be bent in all sorts of ridiculous directions without losing its essential Elvisness, so too can Bruce swallow outside elements with nary a dent in the Fender. If there's room for the qawwali Bruce, then certainly there's room for the orchestrated, trip-hop Bruce. And while Brendan O'Brien can add sugar to the potion, he can't easily dilute its potency.