The sticker on the cover seems like it must be a mistake, proclaiming The Rising to be Bruce Springsteen's "first studio album with the E Street Band since Born In The U.S.A." How could it be that he has spent 60 percent of his career not recording with them? Much of this, of course, is due to the simple fact that Springsteen has been much less prolific in the past 18 years than he was in his first 12 years as a recording artist. Which is understandable; everyone deserves time to prioritize other elements of their life, and when Springsteen did resurface, he often was exploring other directions, such as 1995's decidedly non-rocking The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Still, if you're not careful, a welcome respite can turn into a life gone by in the blink of an eye, and so The Rising is indeed a long-overdue return for Springsteen to the realm that suits him best as an artist. The results prove the point: It is his best album in at least fifteen years, perhaps twenty. Granted, it's not quite a classic. Though its finest moments rest with Springsteen's best work, The Rising is ultimately a little too long for its own good; at 15 songs and 73 minutes, it starts and ends beautifully but sags just a little in the middle. Springsteen has said he recorded 17 songs for the record, and acknowledged that keeping 15 was a high percentage by his standards; the album would have benefited if he'd been as selective as usual. Admittedly, narrowing things down would have been difficult, given that The Rising feels at times like two albums colliding with each other -- one the kind of E Street comeback record he might have been expected to make under normal circumstances, the other a response to the effects of September 11 on everyday Americans. The latter aspect has received the most attention, and with good reason. "Into The Fire", "You're Missing" and the album's title cut express the emotional impact with an empathy that no other songwriter addressing the events of September 11 has managed. Other tunes touch on the tragedy in less specific terms; its weight hangs over the entire album, yet the overall tone is more timeless than topical. Musically, there's little ground here that Springsteen hasn't covered before -- but that is assuredly one of the album's strengths. "Mary's Place" bristles with the kind of bottled-up excitement that defined The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle; "Nothing Man" recalls the pensive, brooding balladry of Tunnel Of Love; "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" swings with the kind of infectious catchiness that marked Born In The U.S.A.; "Paradise" echoes the moody evocations on The Ghost Of Tom Joad; "Further On Up The Road" recalls the raw muscular rock of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Never mind whether the musical approach is "challenging" or "innovative": All five of these tracks succeed because they're great songs, plain and simple. The same can't be said of "Countin' On A Miracle" and "Empty Sky", which largely revisit lyrical themes explored elsewhere but are not as strong musically. They send the record slightly off-track in its midsection, along with a couple instances where Springsteen does become somewhat experimental. Still, those two risks were probably worth taking: The Middle-Eastern vibe of "Worlds Apart" (courtesy Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan and his group) reminds that America's perspective on the world is inherently limited; and the adventurous rhythmic structure of "The Fuse" creates a tangible tension. Ultimately, though, Springsteen succeeds because he reconnects with his natural affinity for rock 'n' roll -- albeit with a considerable debt to the music's most spiritual roots. In fact, The Rising often comes across as a modern-day gospel record: Several choruses are chanted repeatedly and fervently in the manner a preacher might use to inspire his congregation, while other passages are delivered with a serene stoicism that recalls the solemnity of prayer. Yet this form of gospel avows no specific allegiance to Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, or any formal religion. Rather, it places its faith in a simple but vital belief: the underlying, undying virtue of humankind. May his hope give us hope.