The new Bruce Springsteen album is his best in a more than a decade. It's also the first for which he hasn't composed a single song. These two phenomena, sorry to say, are not unrelated. Springsteen has written a handful of the finest rock songs you'll ever hear, and the spare, brisk storytelling style he evolved in the late '70s and early '80s has led everyone from Walker Percy to Robert Coles to hail him, with some justification, as a great American poet, our Bard with a Telecaster. But the truth is, since Tunnel of Love (1987), Springsteen's writing has gone flat. His two most recent albums have been particularly painful. The Rising (2002), Springsteen's vaunted "response to Sept. 11," made an almighty rock 'n' roll noise, but the lyrics found him straining for significance amid an explosion of abstract nouns: "faith," "hope," "blood," "fire," etc. Then came last year's Devils & Dust, a folk-flecked album whose songs suggested that the Boss had taken the praise of the tweedy set too much to heart. Over the usual monochromatic tunes (he's never been much of a melodist), Springsteen poured stilted, "literary" lyrics—"In the Valle de dos Rios, smell of mock orange filled the air"; "We rode with the vaqueros down into cool rivers of green"—that smacked of one too many nights spent curled up with The Complete Cormac McCarthy.
There's reason to believe that Springsteen is suffering from a nasty case of writer's block. When The Rising came out four years ago, it was his first new album since 1995, and Devils & Dust was largely composed of material he'd written years before. In other words, in the last decade-plus, he's recorded only a couple dozen new songs, a paltry number for even a notoriously slow worker like Springsteen. The current release, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, a collection of folk standards associated with Pete Seeger, seems like the classic move of a blocked singer-songwriter, and my heart sank when I first caught wind of the project. The Seeger covers concept will send certain demographics into raptures—it's a wet dream for NPR affiliates lining up gifts at the $125 pledge level for their summer fund drives—but did it also augur a further step in the downsizing of the Boss from mythic rocker to "tasteful" star of the Adult Album Alternative radio format? More troublingly, I imagined we were in for more of Springsteen in High Folkie mode, the gratingly earnest, musically pallid pantomime he has increasingly chosen to perform, complete with battered acoustic guitar, harmonica huffs, and a flat Dust Bowl twang borrowed from Woody Guthrie via Dylan.
But when I put The Seeger Sessions in the CD player, I heard a welcome sound: a racket. Springsteen has chosen to honor "John Henry," "Eyes on the Prize," "We Shall Overcome," and other imperishable folk tunes and spirituals by doing something classically Springsteenesque: inflating them to gargantuan size and belting them out until the veins in his neck bulge as thick as cable rope. To this end he has corralled a 17-piece backing group, including banjo, thumping upright bass, accordion, brass section, and a couple of loudly sawing fiddles—a folk big band.
The sound is both familiar and impressively sui generis. You hear snatches of many roots styles—Western swing, Dixieland, zydeco, bluegrass—but the music steers clear of pastiche, leaping from the speakers and lashing your ears with the force of Springsteen's best rock records. Springsteen has always been a craftsman and synthesist, not an innovator, but songs like "
Springsteen brings the same freewheeling spirit that you hear in his big ragged sound to his interpretations of these famous songs. It's a pleasure to hear a singer treating the canon cavalierly, transposing tunes into minor keys, messing with melody lines and busting up cliches to make these very old songs fresh. For years, " Erie Canal"has been sung as a cutesy children's ditty about a man and his mule, but the gloomy turn Springsteen gives its melody reminds you that this is a song about hard living and back-breaking labor. He sings " We Shall Overcome," the hallowed "anthem of the civil rights movement," as a lover's pledge, a demythologizing move which does nothing to rob the song of its grandeur. And the gospel standard " Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep,"sounds sanctified even when Springsteen and company bash it out like "Cadillac Ranch."
The beginning of Springsteen's folkie aspirations was Nebraska, the 1982 acoustic record that may be his finest songwriting moment. Nebraska was a collection of lo-fi demos recorded by Springsteen at home that he originally intended to redo with the E Street Band but chose to release in its very rough form. It's a deeply atmospheric record, mesmerizing because, lyrically, it's astoundingly well-written and, sonically, it sounds like total crap. Nebraska was an anomaly, but Springsteen saw it as the beginning of a second career, and he has continued to try to remake it, with diminishing returns. The Okie troubadour shtick does not play to his strengths—on The Seeger Sessions, he's found a folk voice that suits him far better.
The album reminds you of something else that's been missing from Springsteen's recent work: laughs. The songs burst with bumptious humor, bad-ass tales, and ribaldry; in the amazing "My Oklahoma Home," tragedy and slapstick jostle up against each other for seven rambling verses. The same is true of Springsteen's greatest work: This is a guy who began an incredibly touching love song, "Sherry Darling" (1980), with the couplet: "Your mama's yappin' in the back seat/ Tell her to push over and move them big feet." It's hard to reconcile that cut-up with the pretentious figure of recent years—wearing a harmonica and a self-serious scowl—and it's good to have the old Bruce back, delivering jokes at the very top of his lungs.