We Shall Overcome:
The Seeger Sessions
It's hard to say exactly when Bruce Springsteen stopped being merely a once-in-a-generation singer, songwriter, and live performer—an oversized figure but still a human one, somebody people could love or hate or shrug off—and became the Smithsonian Institution's traveling one-man Americana collection. I date it to 2002, when he released The Rising, a fine record about loss and mortality that was universally, and a little misleadingly, received as a heroic response to 9/11. Since then, it seems no reviewer or headline writer has been able to pry apart the words "Springsteen" and "America." The banal acclamation runs so deep that Springsteen can't even fart anymore without legions tripping over themselves to proclaim it the perfect expression, in sound and fragrance, of what this great country of ours is all about. The Cincinnati Post's review of his new record says it all: "Springsteen's album captures the sound of America's soul." Don't fret about what that's supposed to mean. It doesn't mean anything.
Here's hoping he realizes at some point that when almost everyone says yes to anything you choose to do, it mainly means they aren't really listening anymore. They know what your words mean before you speak them—even, for that matter, before you have any idea what you're going to say. That kind of embrace, ladled on top of Springsteen's palpable artistic confusion, makes for a flammable combination. How he'll emerge from the creative tunnel he's been in for much of the past 15 years (with a couple of stunning exceptions in The Rising and 1995's Ghost of Tom Joad), or whether he will, is a question The Seeger Sessions only postpones.
But enough. There's a record in here somewhere, if you can hear the brass band in the grooves over the louder one that now lauds Bruce's every triumph. And it's not bad. Seeger Sessions is an intriguing, hit-and-miss one-off project featuring a lot of great players and some rousing moments—loads more engaging than last year's mannered, literary, and largely tuneless Devils & Dust. For good or ill, any notion that it's "about" its times is mostly hot air; the vast majority of the songs would have as much or as little to say about 1966 or 1986 as they do about 2006. The album's pleasures have far more to do with melody and musicality than topicality. Springsteen may be the first person to take these folk standards and put a full band behind them. When it works, it manages to pull songs you thought you knew off the museum shelf and let you hear them as living pieces of music. When it fails, you could be forgiven for hearing higher-octane echoes of the perky, cornpone sing-alongs in Waiting for Guffman. (As for Springsteen's 1997 recording of the title song, the venerable "We Shall Overcome," a word of medical caution: If a doctor has ever said that you may be at risk for adult-onset diabetes, you've got no business even fast-forwarding through this piece of goo.)
The good stuff is almost entirely clustered in the middle of the record's 13 songs. Tracks 4 through 10, the passage starting with "O Mary Don't You Weep" and concluding with "Shenandoah," get at the best the disc has to offer. Aside from "Jacob's Ladder" (too minstrel-show by half to these ears), this is where the interplay of the musicians, Springsteen included, really shines. "Eyes on the Prize" may be the record's finest moment; it's unquestionably the performance that Springsteen succeeds most in personalizing and bringing up to the present moment. As for the rest, well, see what you think. I think Dave Marsh's liner-note histories of the songs are more interesting than the versions Springsteen and his 17-piece band manage.