If you have followed Bruce Springsteen's career rabidly or even casually over the past 30 years or so, it shouldn't surprise you that he has gone all-out folksy on his latest effort, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which hit stores today.
Flecks of folk music have always glimmered in his work. However, in the past decade or so (save for 2002's The Rising), the Boss has delved deeper into the style - mostly eschewing grand, hard-driving rock for spare arrangements reflective of the often-somber, politically spiked tales he weaves.
Devils & Dust, his last effort, released a year ago, was a meandering, undercharged affair. The vividly penned narratives perhaps would have worked better as short stories than songs. On We Shall Overcome, Springsteen didn't write any of the tunes. And neither did Pete Seeger, the iconic folk singer-political activist after whom the album is named. The 13 cuts - a mix of old-timey spirituals, work tunes, folk standards and protest songs - are loosely associated with Seeger. Although the album is abuzz with kinetic energy (something Devils & Dust sorely lacked), it still feels insular at times, even a bit self-indulgent.
The machine behind Springsteen seems to make every new release a major event. But We Shall Overcome is indeed noteworthy for two reasons: It's the pop-rock legend's first covers project, and it's a record that the notorious studio perfectionist didn't tweak to death. The CD was recorded at Springsteen's New Jersey farmhouse with 13 New York musicians in three one-day sessions with no rehearsals. The record is so loose, in fact, that you can hear Springsteen call out chord changes to the band.
The album kicks off with "Old Dan Tucker," which sets up the rambunctious, freewheeling feel of the set. Although he didn't write any of the tunes, Springsteen manages to sound invested, rendering the title cut and "Eyes on the Prize" with appropriate earnestness.
With the inclusion of "Mrs. McGrath," a story about a woman whose son loses half his body to war, and "My Oklahoma Home," a song about a man returning home to find his wife and crops have blown away, you can say Springsteen is commenting on present times with these ancient tunes. It's hard not to make parallels to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina with those two particular songs. But if you're looking for this album to be a not-so-subtle sociopolitical commentary, then you'll miss the exuberance of the music, this rare glimpse of Springsteen just jamming and seemingly having a good ol' time.
Ultimately, though, it's hard to imagine that We Shall Overcome would appeal to anybody other than the hardcore Springsteen fan. The New Orleans marching band-style horns aside, the songs aren't illuminated in any fresh way. The record ends up feeling more like a vanity project, just a little something in the interim as opposed to a deep exploration of the tunes and times that inspired Seeger. (On the flip side of the CD, there's a mildly interesting, 30-minute DVD video that loosely chronicles the recording of the album.)
In essence, We Shall Overcome is a revealing peek at Springsteen letting loose, singing raggedly at times, even laughing. After about a decade of self-serious albums, the Boss surely needed the time to unwind a bit.