[24 April 2006]
The Stone Pony London is a cruel and thankless place to hang out these days.
And as the pre-eminent message board for all things Springsteen, it’s probably also the Web’s most accurate barometer for the buzz surrounding Bruce’s new folkie record, and a cursory scan reveals that talk ranges from cautiously optimistic to a level at which some of these people might now, as you read this, be marching to Springsteen’s Jersey farmhouse with pitchforks and lit torches to kill his ponies. “Maybe it would have been better if he had gone out and hired the best folk, fiddle, horn and string musicians to experiment with instead of hiring his fucking wife, her slutty friends and other Jerseyites who are about as folk as Michael Bloomberg to play on this heap,” goes one typically grammatically entertaining post.
Why such edge and darkness? Ostensibly, it’s because, one: We Shall Overcome is the second consecutive record where Springsteen has left the E Streeters at home; two: It’s his first all-covers album ever and; three: Apparently, largely, because he sings with a twang on it.
But what the pouting misses is that We Shall Overcome—twang or not—is a hoot and a holler, an old-timey, jubilant, front-porch throwdown and a carnival of the kind of Americana that the conservative right throught it detected in Born in the U.S.A. This is American music first, rock second, and folk maybe second or third or fourth. Tracks like “Old Dan Tucker”, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Pay Me My Money Down” simply leap out of the speakers on the power of their ragged vocals, boogie-woogie pianos, banjos, fiddles, booming horn sections, a washboard (I think), Bruce shouting out live band directions and apparently several man-sized jugs of whiskey.
An idea hatched when Bruce contributed the song “We Shall Overcome” to a 1998 Pete Seeger tribute record, The Seeger Sessions was conceived as a new-millennium retelling of songs popularized by the folk icon, but it’s an album that’s about a thousand times more fun than that might suggest. (I’ll admit, the idea gave me initial pause, especially when a leak of “John Henry” revealed that its intro sounded exactly like the one to the theme of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel). Springsteen insists in the liner notes that the idea was to capture not music being written but music being made. Hence, these tracks were laid down in just days, sans rehearsals, with 17 people who really didn’t know each other. The only E Streeters who got the call were the red-headed women: Soozie Tyrell, the violinist Bruce added for The Rising and the one who assembled the band, and Patti Scialfa, because otherwise, breakfasts at the Springsteen house would have probably been really awkward.
But this isn’t a hoary breathing of air into faded songs; this is a sonic transfusion on the order of the Mermaid Avenue records, its most obvious ancestors (though another is Mellencamp’s underrated Trouble No More), and Springsteen has an affinity for these songs you can almost taste. “Old Dan Tucker” is a soaring folk-rocker heavy on the second half of that description, “Jesse James” revs up quickly in telling the outlaw’s tale and “Froggie’ Went a Courtin’” is driven by percussion that seems to involve Bruce slapping his six-string. And the violin-powered “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” demands to be listened to at full volume, with Bruce simultaneously channels Tom Waits and history of gospel (yes, even in digging through the folk songbook, Bruce dug up another Mary. The man’s an animal!)
Smarty-pants writers and cable TV hosts may shuffle through We Shall Overcome looking for political over-or-undertones, but they’ll likely be disappointed. By now, even the corpse of Ronald Reagan knows Bruce is no longer keeping his politics secret, and throwing Pete Seeger into the mix certainly won’t entertain the aging chunk of his fan base that’s drifted to the red. But you’ll find no anti-Bush stuff on this record, nor even any the cautious, somewhat muted commentary of last year’s relatively rigid Devils and Dust (which, it should be noted, sounds about half as alive as this record does). When Bruce and band rev up the zydeco/Dixieland/French Quarter machine for a boom-pah version of “Jacob’s Ladder”, the music—like all New Orleans stuff these days, massive and jubilant and impossible to hear without a wave of melancholy—does the talking so Bruce doesn’t have to. That said, it’s fundamentally impossible to listen to tracks like “Mrs. McGrath”, an ancient Irish fable about a woman whose son loses half his body to war, and “My Oklahoma Home”, in which a man returns home to find his wife and crops blown away, and not draw reflexive parallels to Iraq and Katrina. “All foreign wars, I do proclaim/ Live on blood and a mother’s pain,” Springsteen sings in his singular crag in “Mrs. McGrath”, but he rather gently leaves it at that.
But this is probably several thousands words’ worth of more thinking than the project was intended to conjure up. What we have here is a side project, a toss-off, a lark. Springsteen’s studio work is so meticulously calculated, honed, edited and re-honed again (here’s a guy who by my unscientific count has junked at least six full records, and left his two most famous unreleased songs off of his four-disc outtake box), that hearing such a breezy, drinky effort is both fun as hell and a breath of fresh air. In many ways, it’s about time.