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Bruce Springsteen should get his due tonight.
In a career that has spanned nearly four decades, Springsteen has never won the Grammy for Album of the Year despite classic works like “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” In a field of nominees that is as weak as last year's was strong, "The Rising" is clearly the most cohesive and challenging release among the five choices.
Last year, Springsteen, more than any other artist, stepped forward in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and over the course of 74 minutes and 15 songs, tackled the paralyzing grief, overwhelming loss, and, ultimately, resolve that anyone feels in the wake of losing a loved one.
By exploring a very specific event in universal terms, he managed to celebrate life while sifting delicately through the agonizing loneliness that comes with the death of a friend or a parent or a child. And he did it with grace and a novelist's eye for detail while still rocking out intensely.
If that doesn't earn him a Grammy in a field that includes a middling rap effort by Nelly, the tiresome Eminem, and a decent, but unspectacular debut by Norah Jones, then the award is a joke.
Which is, of course, the catch. The Album of the Year selection is wildly unpredictable. Last year's honor went to “O Brother Where Art Thou,” a truly left-field selection that, while certainly deserving, took everyone by surprise because it was an unabashed roots record released into a market that doesn't seem to welcome such work.
The only other nominee this year that is close to “The Rising” is “Home” by the Dixie Chicks, but it is difficult to imagine the Grammy voters selecting a bluegrass/country disc two years in a row.
Here's a rundown of the nominees, with a few thoughts on each release:
"The Eminem Show," Eminem (Interscope).
Consider him the anti-Springsteen. Where the Boss steps outside himself to use characters who move the narratives of his story songs forward, the only thing Eminem seems to know is Eminem.
“The Eminem Show,” the followup to 2000's huge hit “The Marshall Mathers LP,” documents in laborious detail what happened to the Detroit rapper when fame struck. It plays out like an epic psychodrama where the hero is the ultimate anti-hero: a rich, angry white man creeping up on middle age , bent on ranting about how bad he's got it.
With Dr. Dre as producer, the sound of “The Eminem Show” is fabulous, featuring sinewy bass lines and big funky rhythms that never let up. But as soon as Em starts ranting about how his mom gave him Munchausen Syndrome (for those of you keeping track of the 30-year-old's psychological problems, that's the disorder where a parent convinces a child that he's sick all the time) it makes for uneasy listening.
“Home,” Dixie Chicks (Open Wide).
It would be easy, and wrong, to accuse the Chicks of cashing in on the success of "O Brother Where Art Thou" by coming out with a roots record that is a radical departure from their most recent two discs of pop/country.
But bluegrass aficionados have always known that Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Seidel are the real thing and their return to their own musical past was a natural next step after a nasty fight with their record company and a series of personal upheavals.
"Home" is a classic back-porch record, with fiddles and banjos dominant in the mix. The Chicks haven't lost their sense of humor - check out "White Trash Wedding" - but many of the songs carry an emotional depth that plumbs the complexities of relationships without bitterness.
They also take a pointed shot at the sorry state of popular country music on the rollicking opening track, “Long Time Gone" that serves as a statement of purpose: “Listen to the radio to hear what's cookin'/But the music ain't got no soul/Now they sound tired, but they don't sound Haggard/They got money, but they don't have Cash/They got junior, but they don't got Hank."
"Nellyville," Nelly (Universal)
Besides being wildly popular and topping the Billboard charts in a number of categories, it's difficult to see how this disc merits attention as one of the best of the year.
Unlike last year's rap/hip-hop entry, Outkast's sprawling "Stankonia," “Nellyville” doesn't offer any overt challenges and is short on social commentary or even hooks. Where "Stankonia" forced listeners to confront everything from racism to single parenthood, Nelly provides little more than soundtrack music for a hot party.
Sometimes it works. "Pimp Juice" has an irresistible, funky '70s vibe with a guitar line that sounds like it was lifted from an Isley Brothers session. And the single “Hot in Herre,” which is ubiquitous on pop radio, is a pleasant, sexy dance track.
But most of the time the St. Louis rapper settles into a laid back, monotonous groove that thumps along without much regard for the kind of dynamics or lyrical intensity that can make hip-hop so exciting.
“Come Away With Me,” Norah Jones (Blue Note).
Jones, the 23-year-old daughter of sitar great and George Harrison pal Ravi Shankar, is an exceptionally odd choice for the Album of the Year nomination.
Her second disc, "Come Away With Me," has one standout track, the hit "Don't Know Why" which has a lush melody reminiscent of vintage Joni Mitchell. Jones has a sensuous, husky voice and her cover of the Hank Williams classic "Cold, Cold Heart" breathes fresh life into a standard.
That said, Jones sounds like she's several discs away from deserving to be considered as one of the best of her genre. Most of “Come Away With Me” falls into a languid, pleasant jazz groove without the kind of improvisation and musical surprises that should be expected from a Grammy nominee.
“The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band (Columbia)
Springsteen hails from Freehold, N.J., and on a clear day he could see the World Trade Center from a bridge near his home. Dozens of residents in his county were killed in the attacks and it was natural that he would step forward with money, kind words, and maybe a benefit concert or two.
That wasn't enough, though. Working with the E Street Band on a full length album for the first time in nearly 20 years, he recorded a set that covers everything from the firefighters climbing the stairs of Twin Towers on “Into the Fire” to a young terrorist wired and ready to literally explode on “Paradise”.
He applied a journalist's approach to his work, phoning the family members of some of the victims, chatting with them and offering condolences. Then he did what he is best at: pouring his energy into his work and reflecting what he sees around him.
Some of the images he chronicles are almost too intimate: “a misty cloud of pink vapor,” “up the stairs, into the darkness of your smoky grave,” “coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair/papers on the doorstep, but you're not there.”
But it's not all doom and gloom, of course. On “The Rising” there are moments of levity, love, sex, wild parties, redemption, and a chance to start over and fix things so they can be broken again. For every “Empty Sky” with its haunting Roy Bittan piano line and sad lyrics, there's the happy frivolity of “Waitin' On A Sunny Day.”
With a performance with the E Street Band planned tonight (the telecast is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on CBS), along with a run-through of a Clash song to pay tribute to the late Joe Strummer, tonight's Grammies promises to be a busy night for Springsteen. It's a safe bet that he'll spend some of that time on the podium accepting the Album of the Year award.