This nominal Pete Seeger tribute is easily the best album Bruce Springsteen has made in a quarter century or more. Hey, no one's more surprised by this than me, but there it is.
The record's good enough to convince a skeptic. This album is absolutely superior on every level to anything he's done since the '70s. The most important aspect of this is the songwriting. Bluntly, Springsteen hasn't written much worth hearing in many years. The tunes and hooks were grossly homogenized by Born in the USA, and lost strength entirely after Tunnel of Love, his last really worthwhile album.
He's cast himself here as an interpreter of song rather than a composer. Nominally, these songs are cast as songs associated with Pete Seeger. But mostly I know these songs as folk songs from grade school music textbooks, stuff from before the advent of recording technology. It occurs to me that this suggests a world of great songs that have had limited recording history.
If you know these songs from grade school, as performed by your local versions of Bobbi and Marty Kulp, the SNL music teachers, then you haven't quite got the good out of the song. I half remember being slightly struck by the "Erie Canal" song lo those many decades ago in school, but I've never heard anything like this Bruce Springsteen performance. He takes these songs to a whole different level. He's not just doing simple run-throughs of some old folk songs, but interpreting major standards. It's a whole different level of ambition.
For starters, this is as good a playing band sound as Springsteen ever had in life. So let's note this credit listing: The musicians on the record are Springsteen (guitar, harmonica, B3 organ and percussion), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Art Baron (tuba), Frank Bruno (guitar), Jeremy Chatzy (upright bass), Mark Clifford (banjo), Larry Eagle (drums and percussion), Charles Giordano (B3 organ, piano and accordion), Ed Manion (saxophone), Mark Pender (trumpet), Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg (trombone) and Soozie Tyrell (violin). Lisa Lowell, Patti Scialfa, Springsteen, Pender, Tyrell, and Rosenberg contribute backing vocals.
He's concocted a sonic stew worthy of savoring. Reaching into pre-rock stylings, he sounds a little bit like a lot of things, but not really close to any of them. In flashes, I'm getting vibes of the Band, Mellencamp's Lonesome Jubilee, New Orleans, and Salvation Army bands.