Saturday, January 24, 2009

Spingsteen's Overlooked Classic

This Tuesday will see the release of Bruce Springsteen's 16th studio album, Working on a Dream. It's his fifth album this decade, making his aughties output the most fecund and, arguably, the most celebrated of his career. The early reviews are a bit mixed. Rolling Stone has awarded the album five stars, something they rarely do for a new release. (Actually, Bruce has already received two five-star reviews from RS since 2002, for The Rising and Magic. Bob Dylan is the only other artist this decade to earn multiple five-star reviews for new material, for "Love and Theft" and Modern Times.) A number of other critics have derided the album, for its "clunky, banal lyrics."

The consensus is that Dream is a return to the exuberance of Springsteen's early records. This ignores Springsteen's best album of his late career, and one of his greatest ever: 2006's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The Seeger Sessions was an improbable achievement. Ostensibly, it's a covers record of Pete Seeger standards. When the album was first announced, I shuddered at the thought of another ponderous folk album from Springsteen (since it followed the lumbering Devils and Dust, and let us not forget The Ghost Of Tom Joad). Boy, was I wrong.

The Seeger Sessions turned out to be a buoyant, riotous, setting-the-woods-on-fire hootenanny. He and his motley band of twelve musicians barely rehearsed before they recorded the tracks, and you can tell. At times, the songs sound like they're going to rip apart at the seams, until Bruce shouts out for a key change, at which point they reconvene and bring it all back home. It has the feverish energy of a live album, which it essentially is, but with the production of a studio record.

Ironically, only the title track--which Spingsteen recorded in 1997 for a Seeger tribute record--falls flat. Otherwise, the Seeger Sessions soars. Stylistically, the album stands side-by-side with the aforementioned Dylan albums (or even his and the Band's Basement Tapes), like throwbacks to the American music of another era. The upbeat numbers (like "John Henry" and "O Mary Don't You Weep") start soft and build in energy, while others (like "Jacob's Ladder") start big and crescendo from there. The more subdued tracks are only so in tempo and dynamics; they still contain the energy of a punk record.

It is to Springsteen's credit that he was able to take these American standards and make them his own. It's likely that The Rising and Magic (and maybe even Working on a Dream) will be remembered as Springsteen's late-career achievements. But it will be The Seeger Sessions, his oddball gem, that will continue to sing from my speakers.