Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bruce Springsteen's olde-tyme hootenanny

I'm immensely thankful I got my laptop fixed (well, it still needs a little work done), but it won't let me load pictures, which is an annoyance. Ah, well.

Please send in your ballots for the best-of-TV survey. You've got a little over two weeks to go, and I'd like to double the 40 or so ballots I have in right now. So vote!

Anyway, continuing our non-television weekend, let's take a look at Bruce Springsteen's newest CD, "We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions." On paper, it's a horribly pretentious title, promising lots of dreadfully earnest ballads and political commentary. But that's because we're assuming Springsteen would put emphasis on the "Pete Seeger" part of the secondary title. Instead, he put the emphasis on the "Sessions" part. And that made all of the difference.

Now, I'm a Springsteen fan going way back. I love roughly every album he made between "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" and "Born in the USA." "Born to Run" and "Nebraska" are albums I write to all of the time. I even find stuff to love in his lesser albums (except for that "Human Touch"/"Lucky Town" combo). But, let's face it, the man has been a bit slowed, perhaps by expectations, in recent years. "The Rising," while it had some amazing songs, was too long by about six or seven tracks (I still think it managed to somehow be more than the sum of its parts). And "Devils and Dust" was problematic all around (though the title track was pretty good).

But on this new album, Springsteen sounds re-energized. He's finally found a way, I think, to make an album about America (which seems to be what he's been trying to do for so long now). I don't listen to a lot of music like many of my friends, and I don't fancy myself a music critic, but I haven't heard anything quite this wide-ranging from an established artist in a long time.

In 2004, Springsteen made headlines by campaigning for John Kerry (and taking part in that MoveOn.org concert tour that I can't remember the name of for the life of me). When he came to Madison, Wis., on the day before the election, my newspaper at the time (the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) covered it. Now, as a good journalist (who never gives political donations or shows support for a candidate outside of the voting booth), I didn't go, but I read all of the coverage, and something Springsteen talked about has resonated with me since. He talked about the "America we carry in our hearts," and this album seems to be his best representation of that.

Sonically, this is a big album, an attempt to shove turn-of-the-20th-century folk tunes into the Phil Spector sound Springsteen is so fond of. And the songs sound nothing like you think they would. The ones you expect might be dreary and filled with self-importance end up being some of the jolliest numbers (give a listen to "My Oklahoma Home"), while numbers that have been turned into happy songs you sing around campfires have been stripped down to their dark vitals ("Erie Canal" fits this profile in particular).

This is music for a big country full of over-sized legends and people. It's music for a land with elbow room, and it manages to blend almost as many musical styles as there are states. Hurricane Katrina somehow maintains a presence on the album, as the songs take turns into Dixieland jazz and zydeco. The temptation to lapse into political commentary is only succumbed to once, but the songs, speaking as they do of poor people, fighting against unjust systems, don't NEED the commentary. The issues spoken of are still with us today.

Now, not everything on this album works, but the most important thing is that Springsteen feels alive here, the most alive he's sounded in years. He calls out chord changes and giggles as he counts off the opening of a song. And he never lets the songs lapse into self-parody or anything approaching over-familiarity. You might have sung these songs in grade school music class, but you never sang them like this.

When I first heard about this project, I was worried it might be music for your grandmother. And it still is. But you'd better hope you have a rowdy grandmother.

1 comment:

Bean said...

Vote For Change was the name of that tour.