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We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions
One of the biggest challenges facing some of rock's most fabled names is what to do with the rest of their lives. If you're The Rolling Stones, you're content to play the stadiums, rehash earlier triumphs with mediocre albums, and become the equivalent of an oldies act.
Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon are either smarter than the Stones, or they're realists. They know they're not likely to ever come up with another Born to Run, Tunnel of Love, Rhymin' Simon, or Graceland. So to their credit, they're not even attempting it.
At the same time, they don't want repeat themselves ad nauseum and dissolve into self-parody, like some of their peers. If anyone can pull off this tightrope walk, it's Springsteen. He can still recall the glory days, as this decade's reunion tour with E-Street Band proved in spades. But he's always tempered his rock & roll salvation persona with a dust bowl, Woody Guthrie-fixated solo side. And rarely have his raucous, joyful self and his street corner populist self blended together so seamlessly as on We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions.
For this record, at least, Springsteen has reinvented himself as a carnival barker/ sea shanty story teller, and in doing so, has created some of the purest, rocking music he's mustered since before he became known as the "Boss".
Springsteen claims to have first heard most of these tunes on the collections of Pete Seeger albums he discovered. With accordion, fiddle, washboard, a horn section, and standup bass replacing guitar solos, the Big Man's sax and Mighty Max's thunder, the music on We Shall Overcome takes on an organic quality that recalls early back porch Springsteen works like "Wild Billy's Circus" and "Bishop Dance." It's more Americana than rock & roll, but with an equally liberating effect.
Rollicking tunes like "Old Dan Tucker" and "Erie Canal" are no more than an excuse to make some glorious noise, with Springsteen in his gruffest voice barking out instruments to take solos on the largely improvised arrangements.
The more tempered material works even better, with the anti-war "Mrs. McGrath", the stately title track, and the gospel rousers providing a breathtaking scope of history that comes to life in bursts of traditional arrangements and instrumentation.
Springsteen sounds revitalized and joyous on We Shall Overcome. Even if he has to look to past centuries for inspiration, it bodes well for his future.
Paul Simon was certainly in need of some kind of inspiration. The last decade hasn't been too kind - with The Capeman, a Broadway flop, and his last underwhelming album of original material, You're The One.
So just like Bob Dylan turned to Daniel Lanois in 1988 to help midwife his then-comeback Oh Mercy, Simon has turned to an unlikely musical partner - no, not Art Garfunkel - but electronic music pioneer and U2 buddy Brian Eno.
No wonder he called the resultant album Surprise. It's still unmistakably Simon - thanks to his distinctive vocals and his usual incredibly literary and humorous lyrics. But just as Graceland drew upon an African pop musical influence to create a masterpiece, Surprise is awash in atmosphere, sonic textures and result in Simon's most modern sounding album.
A masterpiece it isn't, but Surprise is a solid Simon offering. It begins with a forceful, tough sounding "How Can You Live in the Northeast" that would sound natural on college radio.
In addition to commentary on aging baby boomers, Simon can still create universal songs that speak volumes. While some of the material suffers from over-verbiage at the expense of smart arrangements, Simon rebounds with the closing "Father and Daughter", the album's most straightforward pop song, and possibly its most touching.
Rather than retire to rocking chairs, both Simon and Springsteen are utilizing their undiminished talent to forge new directions in their music. Unlike their contemporary Neil Young's forewarning, they've neither burned out not faded away.