Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes Album Review

Who would have guessed that Springsteen's 18th studio album would contain no new songs at all?

Springsteen High Hopes

rating: 3.5

At 64 Bruce Springsteen is working harder than at any other point in his professional career. Since 2002 he has released seven studio albums, a 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' rarities double album, and two live albums. On top, he and the E Street Band have toured almost constantly since 2006. His latest album, 'High Hopes' is a collection of the tracks that fell through the cracks and became, in the words of the man himself; "some of our best unreleased material from the past decade". In documentaries about the making of the 'Born to Run' and 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' albums Springsteen is seen to throw out excellent songs because they do not fit the theme and vision he is trying to shape. As the years have gone by many tracks are still locked in the vaults because of this policy. It seems that 'High Hopes' is an unexpected outing for some of them. The trouble is the whole project feels rushed. As far as opening tracks and lead singles go, 'High Hopes' is a bit of a damp squib. Recycled from the 1990's documentary 'Blood Brothers' about reforming the E Street Band, the song itself has been given a once over by the modern rhythmic and horn-laced incarnation of the band but has little else of note to offer. It showcases the band at a canter rather than at full pace. 'Harry's Place' broods and snarls but, like the title track, fails to have a strong impact. It was first recorded in 2002 for 'The Rising' but was omitted from the final album because it didn't fit thematically. It still doesn't here but is musically very strong and distinct. 'American Skin (41 Shots)' was written amid great controversy surrounding the shooting of Amadou Diallo and the song resurfaced during the 'Wrecking Ball' tour in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case. Here it gets its first studio recording. For many fans this and 'Land of Hope and Dreams' are two of the high points of Springsteen's modern era catalogue. While it would be impossible to capture the eruption of power that is the E Street Band performing live, this version complete with an exquisite solo by Morello, more than does it justice. When 'Just Like Fire Would' was covered during the 2013 Australian tour it seemed that the E Street version of The Saints' song was a one-off treat for the locals. On record it delivers with high energy and joyous chorus reminiscent of the lighter moments on 'The River.' It doesn't marry with the themes of Springsteen's recent work but that doesn't matter as it reminds us that music can be just as valuable when it is fun and throwaway rocker as when it has a deep socio-political message to deliver. The production leaves no doubt that 'Down in the Hole' is another song left over from the recording of 'The Rising.' Creative, sparse and extremely powerful, it is a certain highlight of the new record. While it is understandable that it too wasn't used for 'The Rising' (it re-covers themes other tracks had already dealt with) putting it here is perplexing because it is even more out of place and further confuses 'High Hopes' as a project. Following on from 'Down in the Hole' it is concerning to hear a track that seems as tired as 'Heaven's Wall.' It tries too hard to be an anthem and is soaked in biblical references that the gospel fused 'Rocky Ground' from 2012's 'Wrecking Ball,' used in a far superior way. At the halfway point 'Heaven's Wall' proves that 'High Hopes' is a compilation of scraps rather than a fully formed album. Spirited and erratically light in the context of the previous two tracks, 'Frankie fell in Love' is not a great song and never pretends to be. It is a loose pop song and is very good for being just that. For many years Springsteen's output has been serious and lacked moments as breezy as this. Biblical imagery floods over 'This is your Sword' and 'Hunter of invisible Game' with the trite odour of cheese and mawkish sentimentality. As always the musicality is faultless but overall the record would have been much better served if these tracks had stayed unreleased. One of the real treats of seeing Springsteen live is the otherworldly rendition of 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' performed alongside Tom Morello who brings a real brute force to the reinvigorated live version. Thankfully the studio version is just as ferocious, angry, frustrated and fist-pumping. This is easily the strongest track on the album and as close to the energy of the band live as a studio track has ever got. But even this is strange in the context of 'High Hopes.' A strikingly similar live version was released on a tour EP in 2008 when Springsteen and Tom Morello first played the song together onstage. As good as this is, why rehash it? 'The Wall' is a song now over ten years old about friends lost to the Vietnam War. It is a song of honesty and true sadness and deserved to become one of Springsteen's fantastic album closers like 'Wreck on the Highway' or 'My Hometown.' It is strange that one of Rock music's greatest and most prolific songwriter and lyricists would choose to bookend his latest studio effort with cover songs but he has with Suicide's 'Dream Baby Dream' rounding out this collection. First played as a surprise finale at the 2005 'Devils and Dust' tour on which, accompanied by loops, it was performed on a pump organ. As its exquisite, swirling mantra concludes the album it is hard to tell what I've just listened to. If anything 'High Hopes' is a curiosity rather than a typical studio album. On one hand it is a jumbled ball of tracks not deemed suitable for other projects, on the other it is the overlooked getting a second chance and rebuilt. Who would have guessed that Springsteen's 18th studio album would contain no new songs at all? Cover songs, new recordings of live tracks and lost songs mean that track by track 'High Hopes' is disjointed and feels like a hurriedly constructed compilation, however, with the muscle of the E Street Band behind the songs there is much to admire here. The inclusion of Tom Morello on eight of the twelve tracks gives the record vitality and a freshness of sound and the band yet another string to their bow.

I have one golden rule: There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Any song or film that makes you feel good doesn't need justifying.