Friday, January 31, 2014

Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes [album review]

Released January 14th

Advance notice of High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album, being an "odds and ends" collection of songs reined in my expectations for it. Really, how many of these kinds of "stopgap" albums made up of covers, unreleased material, and reworked versions of previously released songs from any artist ever stand out as memorable? Very few. That being said, the late November announcement of the album still managed to get me a little giddy, as us hardcore Springsteen fans continue to enjoy one of the most prolific periods of the man's 40 year career. High Hopes, which bizarrely was accidentally put on sale by Amazon on December 28th two-and-a-half weeks before its official release date (and then widely circulated on file sharing networks), is Springsteen's sixth studio album to come out since 2005's Devils & Dust.

The cover songs: Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who has made numerous live guest appearances with Springsteen since 2008 and was temporarily filling in for E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt during Springsteen's 2013 Australian tour, suggested the rockabilly-style number for their live set that would become the album's title track and lead single (note: although a more stripped-down version of the song was first released by Springsteen in 1996 on his obscure Blood Brothers EP, I'm still categorizing it as a cover). Here, the full force of the E Street Band (expanded to a whopping 19 members now, including Morello) adds significantly more layers to the track with the contributions of Morello's trademark unconventional guitar style, backup singers, and horns that inject needed life into a mediocre bit of songwriting, which was originally recorded by L.A. band The Havelinas. Appearing on three-quarters of High Hopes' 12 tracks, Morello's surprisingly heavy presence on the album reflects the substantial inspiration that Springsteen has gotten from the guitarist in recent years. A satisfying cover of Australian punk act The Saints' "Just Like Fire Would" is the most obvious song on High Hopes that adheres closest to the "classic Springsteen" sound, with Max Weinberg's powerful drumming, walls of guitars, plenty of keyboards, and counter-harmony vocals from Van Zandt. "Dream Baby Dream", originally recorded by 70s punk band Suicide, closes the album on a lyrically optimistic note, but the song's repetitive structure doesn't make it a terribly memorable addition to Springsteen's catalog.

The reworked songs: Like "Land Of Hope And Dreams", which also debuted on Springsteen's turn-of-the-millenium reunion tour and took many years to finally make it onto a studio album (2012's Wrecking Ball), the sombre "American Skin (41 Shots)" stands as one of Springsteen's finest works. Written about the 1999 killing of an unarmed immigrant named Amadou Diallo by the NYPD, the song took on new relevance and was returned to Springsteen's live set following the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. This updated version, while still excellent and bolstered by a soulful Morello solo, for me doesn't quite retain the power of the lengthy live version featuring solo vocal contributions from some of the E Street Band members that was first released on 2001's Live In New York City album/DVD. The title track from 1995's folky The Ghost Of Tom Joad album (one of the few decent songs from perhaps my least favourite Springsteen release) faithfully recreates the live jam-heavy full-band version that Morello has frequently guested on, as well as covered on Rage Against The Machine's Renegades album. It's on this tenth track where Morello seems to have overstayed his welcome, however, with a solo vocal turn on one of the verses (his voice is decidedly bland) and excessive guitar wankery. It's a real uphill climb past the record scratching sounds he pulls out of his guitar at the six-and-a-half minute mark of the arduously seven-and-a-half minute song.

The previously unreleased songs: The seven songs unheard by all but the most diehard Springsteen disciples via bootlegs present a rather mixed bag. Most notable are the songs from the early 2000s written for The Rising album: the profanity-laced "Harry's Place" effectively sets the scene of a grungy crime world ruled by the titular character and is anchored by an E Street Band groove, along with the welcome, yet bittersweet sounds of the late Clarence Clemons' saxophone; the subdued "Down In The Hole" feels like a close relative of Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" and also keeps the spirit of another deceased E Streeter alive with the inclusion of a solo from organist Danny Federici, who died in 2008; Federici's organ sings again on the beautiful "The Wall", High Hopes' best track that was written by Springsteen after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Somewhere in the middle in terms of quality rests "Frankie Fell In Love", and pulling up the rear are filler tracks "Hunter Of Invisible Game", the grating "Heaven's Wall" (featuring mumbled Springsteen vocals and more Morello guitar excess), and the forgettable "This Is Your Sword".

There are some gems to be found amongst the disparate material that makes up the middling High Hopes and that's better than nothing for a lot of us Springsteen fans. After all, this is an artist who had a stretch between 1987 and 2002 where he only released five studio albums, so we'll take just about whatever we can get out of The Boss now during the home stretch of his career.

Rating: C+ 

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my August 2012 review of Springsteen's Toronto stop on his Wrecking Ball Tour, March 2012 review of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball album, June 2011 tribute to Clarence Clemons, and November 2010 review of Springsteen's London Calling: Live In Hyde Park Blu-ray