Even a songwriter as questing as Bob Dylan found that, in an extended period of writers' block, it was helpful to revisit the traditional songs that most inspired him in his early days. The resulting two albums 'Good As I Been To You' and 'World Gone Wrong', whilst derided for vocal deterioration and lack of original material on release, have since been (rightly) revisited as the fond recapturing of a timeless American heritage. Bruce Springsteen has now followed in his hero's footsteps, releasing 'We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions' a mere twelve months after his last solo album, the intermittently powerful 'Devils and Dust'. Springsteen has recently admitted a new awareness of his mortality, and that his life as a recording artist might be drawing to a close. Throwing caution to the wind, he now seems to have entered a new prolific period with little concern for charts or maintaining his popularity. Bloggers in the US reacted angrily - they wanted the rumoured new E Street Band album and tour and they certainly didn't want to hear an artist of The Boss' stature 'descend' to the level of 'Froggie Went A Courtin'. Hopefully, on hearing 'We Shall Overcome', they will all eat their hats. It is, plainly and simply, a brilliant record.
The emphasis on Pete Seeger is at least slightly misleading. Springsteen has avoided Seeger originals - there's no 'Turn Turn Turn', 'If I Had A Hammer' or, perhaps wisely, 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone?'. Instead, Springsteen has opted for a series of traditional American folk songs that Seeger recorded or performed and which Springsteen has clearly rediscovered through a new appreciation of Seeger's work. Invited to record the title track for a Seeger tribute album in 1997, Springsteen conceded that he knew little of Seeger's work, and this project has been slowly developing since that recording session sparked his interest. Perhaps Seeger, unjustly infamous for pulling the plug on Bob Dylan's electric set at Newport (he has since claimed he didn't object to Dylan 'going electric', simply that the ugly sound mix was obscuring his lyrics), may gain a whole new audience at the age of 87.
Springteen has assembled a huge band for this project and the sound is riotous, unhinged and celebratory. With Springsteen audibly calling out the individual solos (best moment comes with a cry of 'everybody solo!'), it is the joyous sound of music not just being recorded, but being made. All the recordings are single live takes. With Soozie Tyrell's woozy violin, gospel-tinged backing vocals and a superb dixieland horn section dominating the mix, the sound is as much New Orleans jazz as banjo-laden Appalachian country. Although Springsteen's natural resistence to provocation has perhaps directed him away from overtly political material here, many of the songs here have contemporary resonances. 'My Oklahoma Home' could easily just as much relate to New Orleans post-Katrina and Springsteen has been dedicating the Irish anti-war ballad 'Mrs McGrath' to Cindy Sheehan at recent gigs (an act likely to be more contentious with many Americans than his role in the Vote For Change tour).
Springsteen's voice is at its most commanding and varied here. He adopts a primal howl on a furious rendition of 'John Henry', a tone of sombre reflection on the title track and 'Shenandoah' and even a Waitsian gravel voice on the superb 'Erie Canal'. Behind him, the band frequently rip it up, but the live setting has allowed for plenty of variation in dynamic and texture, and as a consequence the music is far more unpredictable and exciting than the over-produced layers Brendan O'Brien concocted for 'The Rising'. It's fascinating to hear how Springsteen truly comes alive in this setting, recontextualising these songs and drawing out their magic. Even the most lightweight material (nonsense songs such as 'Old Dan Tucker' or 'Froggie...') work brilliantly because they fit in well with the overall sense of fun. Given that Springsteen is, not entirely unfairly, regarded as one of America's most earnest songwriters, the unbridled gallop of these songs, together with the unrestrained joy with which Springsteen delivers them, will be refreshing to many Sprinsteen agnostics. Best of all is a sterling version of the gospel standard 'O Mary Don't You Weep', which not only provides the obligatory inclusion of a Mary, but also clearly demonstrates Springsteen's heritage in blues, gospel and soul. He sounds completely invigorated here.
It's a bonus that the album comes with an excellent 30 minute short film about the making of the album, including some rollicking live performances. My ticket for next Monday's Hammersmith Apollo show arrived this morning. Whilst understandably focussing on standards (including some songs not recorded for this album), the show apparently includes a small clutch of Springsteen originals rearranged for the folk band. It promises to be a fanastic evening. Sprinsteen's great achievement with this project is to prove just how timeless the American folk tradition is - this music still sounds completely and utterly alive, and Springsteen has made it his own.