Musicians provide strength in the time of need

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

In the past, art has elevated the human spirit after tragedy. It has soothed and comforted, inspired and exalted.

In the wake of Europe’s devastation after World War I, poets and novelists glorified a nation’s heroes, while deploring the horrible toll of the war.

After and during World War II, the film industry and the theater created works which entertained and soothed during the world’s most devastating conflict.

And after Sept. 11, America’s comforters have come from a most unusual realm: the world of popular music.

Within days, country artists were cranking out jingoistic ballads. For the most part, these country songs were largely reactionary and kind of dumb. Indeed, the only one to distill a nation’s anger and provide a little sensitivity was Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”

It is not as if country music was the only genre attempting to reconcile the terrors of Sept. 11 with the better parts of human nature.

Both Neil Young and Paul McCartney wrote songs (“Let’s Roll” and “Freedom” respectively) that strained for meaning, but ultimately felt pedantic.

Meanwhile, numerous tribute albums dedicated to 9/11 hit the streets, promising to share their profits with the grieving families of the victims.

According to the March 28 issue of Entertainment Weekly, none of the money from the album “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” which features performances by U2, Alicia Keys and Bruce Springsteen among others, has gone to victims.

The record labels involved are only donating money after the costs of manufacturing, distribution and marketing.

In the summer of 2002, however, popular music began to stick its toe into the water of 9/11, releasing three albums, two directly inspired by the events, one written before them, that seemed to reach out to the grieving millions.

The first of these albums to be released was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (4.5 stars), which was written and recorded well before the attacks, but released afterwards.

Despite the fact that the album was recorded before the attacks, it certainly seems to have been written in their aftermath.

The front cover photo of two grey towers standing against an empty sky certainly seems to speak to the events of 9/11.

Even the titles of the songs seem to be about 9/11, including titles as ominous as “Ashes of American Flags” or “War on War.”

Wilco seems to be a band that tries to create a tribute to a great album with every new release.

On their last release Summerteeth, they seemed to be aiming for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they’re after the grim soundscapes of Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A.

For my money, they don’t quite make it, but they come awfully close.

Summerteeth is a more consistent, more melodic album, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot captures the feeling of dread the country felt from September 12 on perfectly. The album is wispy, like a memory of someone gone, and requires a few plays to sink into memory, but once it does, it has its claws in you.

Lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy seems to have anticipated 9/11 in his lyrics. “Ashes of American Flags” (the album’s best track) is a heartbreaking ode to an American innocence which has been long gone.

The final track “Reservations” captures perfectly the feelings of fear and uncertainty the country experienced after the attacks as we clung to those we loved.”

“I’ve got reservations/ About so many things, but not about you,” Tweedy croons.

If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seemed to be grieving with us, Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (5 stars) wants to help the country heal and build new strength.

Springsteen writes his songs from the perspectives of people who have just lost someone. While it’s obvious he’s singing about Sept. 11, the lyrics are non-specific enough to refer to anyone who has lost someone, which is the album’s genius.

The Rising meanders some. Not all of its songs are perfect. But when Springsteen is on, no one can beat him for providing pure, classic American rock.

Indeed, this is the best pure American rock album since the 1980s.

While Springsteen provides a few songs that deal with the deep grief felt after death (“You’re Missing,” one of the best songs Springsteen has ever written, in particular), he also sings of moving on.

In “Mary’s Party,” which is for the most part a rocker, he sings from the perspective of a woman going out to a party for the first time without her husband.

The party is a good time and the music builds into a crescendo of noise and fun when Springsteen stops the song dead with the plaintive question “How do we live brokenhearted?”

It’s that questioning, that desire to move on that make the album more than just a 9/11 gimmick. The final four song cycle of “You’re Missing,” “The Rising,” “Paradise” and “My City of Ruins” provides a perfect story of death, the afterlife and rebirth, with Springsteen finally exhorting over the backing of his always brilliant E-Street band and gorgeous strings “Come on, rise up!”

It’s a challenge to a country still numb with grief, which Springsteen hopes we will meet.

If Springsteen believes America will overcome its grief, Coldplay is decidedly unsure.

Their latest album A Rush of Blood to the Head (4 stars) was also inspired by the events of 9/11.

The album taps into the grief Wilco feels, hopes for the best with Springsteen and wonders what will ever become of humanity.

On their last album Parachutes, Coldplay had a few standout tracks, which became radio hits. However, for the most part, the band succumbed to its own mopiness (a problem many British acts have), reveling in sadness and despair.

Now, infused with the sense that the world is ending, Coldplay’s mopiness has become directed and to the point.

The songs fly into the air in an apocalyptic swirl.

The band has said they wrote much of the album in the weeks after 9/11 when they were convinced the world was ending, and it shows.

It is by no means a perfect album.

The band often goes off on tangents, as it did on Parachutes.

The opening track “Politik,” however, taps into what Coldplay is after perfectly.

In the song, Coldplay wonders whether the politics of the world will destroy us all, finally exhorting the public to “Open up your eyes/ And give me love over this.”

Other standout tracks include “Clocks,” the title track and “Amsterdam,” a gorgeous piano ballad that seems to have been written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

It is on the title track, however, where Coldplay have their finest moment.

“A Rush Of Blood To The Head” seems to intertwine the story of a terrorist jubilant in the aftermath of the attacks and someone wanting to start a war.

It’s a superb piece of writing that proves Coldplay has a great album in them.

Maybe they’ve got one in them, if they can ever just excise those mopey demons.

All in all, the albums that spoke to people after 9/11 have been surprisingly good pieces of work. It remains to be seen if any other 9/11 albums will reach these heights.

But if only these three remain, we will be a very lucky music-listening populace indeed.