Redemption is the glue that binds all of Bruce Springsteen's music together. Springsteen seeks out redemption everywhere, from the promise of an escape to a better life ("All the redemption I can offer, girl" -- he memorably sang on "Thunder Road" -- "is beneath this dirty hood") to a lifelong romance on "If I Should Fall Behind," which, performed on his last tour, he expanded to include the salvation found in his E Street bandmates.
Finding meaning and purpose in not just love and sex but baseball, street life, and even politics, Springsteen is rock's most enduring optimist. His redemption obsession finds its fullest expression on his twelfth album, The Rising, much of which is about the most unsparingly grim of historical moments: September 11. Springsteen conveys the day's almost apocalyptic horror on songs like "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing": Skies are "streaked with blood," lives vanish in a "misty cloud of pink vapor."
But Springsteen refuses to allow himself either vengefulness or excessive pride, and he avoids too-literal musings on the tragedy that ultimately undermined songs like Neil Young's "Let's Roll." Springsteen even has conciliatory words for those on the other side of the conflict: On "Worlds Apart," Springsteen, backed by qawwali singer Asif Ali Khan, sings hopefully that "we'll let blood build a bridge, over mountains draped in stars."
Such high-minded stuff is smartly balanced with less weighty musings on love and rock and roll. One of the album's best songs, "Mary's Place" (which respectfully echoes Sam Cooke's "Meet Me at Mary's Place"), is light-years from the 9/11-oriented material, but it seems just as transcendent as Springsteen sings of the joys of a block party: a favorite record on the turntable, the floor rumbling to the beat, shouts of approval from the crowd. As the song reaches its climax, Springsteen trades verses call-and-response-like with a gospel choir called the Alliance Singers, signaling that even in escapism there is a sense of redemption.
Yet the nobility of The Rising -- which was recorded quickly in the weeks after 9/11 -- seems sadly out of step with the current moment, when the shared sense of purpose from last fall has been all but squandered by a wave of corporate scandals and a remote war run by a president who asks very little of his citizenry. If The Rising were recorded now, it might have resembled the bleak landscape of Nebraska rather than the goodness-through-sacrifice of Born in the USA. Instead, Springsteen is simply doing what he does best: seeing the light at the end of even the darkest of tunnels.
A black-and-white photo on the back cover of By the Way, the new CD from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, pictures the band huddled in an anguished pose, as though they're standing over a grave site. The smug somberness of the shot symbolizes everything that's wrong with the Peppers lately: They've become pop's most unbearable -- and, given their purposefully amateurish punk-funk background, unlikely -- sad sacks. By the Way is chock-full of meandering reflections on lead singer Anthony Kiedis's well-known obsessions: lost friends, Los Angeles, and heroin. Like nearly all of the Peppers's postBlood Sugar Sex Magik work, it's awkward both lyrically (from mixed metaphors like "bloodshot smile" to unintentional howlers like "Can I smell your gasoline / Can I pet your wolverine") and sonically (the many funk and hip-hop vamps among the balladeering seem to come out of nowhere). In their earlier incarnation, there wasn't much of a pretense toward seriousness, and their hero worship of the likes of George Clinton turned on a lot of white kids -- myself included -- to great black music, something rap-rockers like Limp Bizkit could never do. Now they've taken seriousness to its most unsmiling extreme. By the Way is as enjoyable as being stuck in an elevator playing a Muzak version of "Under the Bridge."
The Rising (Columbia)
Red Hot Chili Peppers
By the Way (Warner Bros.)