From the first chorus of the first track on High Hopes (2014), you know Bruce Springsteen is trying something different with this one. First off, “High Hopes” is a cover of a little-known L.A. band from the 90s, the Havalinas; and while it’s not unusual for Springsteen to play covers, especially live, it’s a little less usual for him to open a studio album with one. Second, its Latin horns and syncopated rhythms are new territory for the E Street Band. Third, that guitar solo doesn’t quite sound like anything we’ve heard on a Springsteen album – probably because it’s Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, whose presence is strongly felt throughout this new album.
The rest of High Hopes isn’t quite the departure that this opening might imply, though it isn’t your standard Springsteen release by any means. This is something of an odds n’ sods collection, featuring no fewer than three covers and drawing on Springsteen’s wealth of unreleased material. It’s not strictly speaking a compilation though: while many of these songs have been floating around for years, they’ve been newly recorded here, and the album has a consistent sound across a decade-and-a-half of songwriting. And anyway, as Springsteen himself pointed out repeatedly in an interview with Rolling Stone, he doesn’t necessarily work linearly; songs intended for one project often end up waiting years for a proper release.
The key question to ask, though, is not “When were these songs written and recorded?” but rather “Do these songs add anything to Springsteen’s sizable catalog?” The answer, for the most part, is yes. These songs may be leftovers, but they’re not table scraps.
I’ve long maintained that Bruce Springsteen is one of the prophets of his generation, both in his themes of struggle and liberation and in the intensity of his live shows – the man can preach! On High Hopes, “Heaven’s Wall” and “Hunter of Invisible Game” cover explicitly Biblical themes, drawing on Old Testament language of promised lands, valleys of the shadow of death, and hours of redemption. But it’s in reworkings of two older songs that the prophetic spirit comes through most clearly. The epic “American Skin (41 Shots)” was written in the wake of the death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of NYC police. Springsteen resurrected it live after Trayvon Martin’s shooting, and its themes of racial tension and police brutality have lost none of their potency – it’s nice to finally have a studio version of this concert favorite. Meanwhile, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is here transformed from one of Bruce’s best acoustic songs to one of his best rockers of the past three decades, fiery and accusatory where the original was understated and haunting, with Tom Morello providing additional vocals and a blistering solo.
The rest of High Hopes neither reaches nor aspires to such heights. “Frankie Fell In Love” may not be the weightiest thing Springsteen has ever written, but it’s a blast nevertheless, recalling the vivid street characters of his early albums. Likewise the Celtic-tinged “This Is Your Sword” and the cover of the Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would,” which boasts an almost “Penny Lane”-like piccolo trumpet solo. And the E Street Band sounds great throughout, of course, the biggest, bestest rock n’ roll band in the world. Not everything works: the downbeat Rising outtakes “Harry’s Place” and “Down in the Hole” don’t play to Springsteen’s strengths; “The Wall” flirts with becoming too ponderous for its own good; some of the more modern production touches are questionable. And even those aforementioned epics aren’t going to dethrone “Thunder Road” anytime soon.
However, expecting another Born to Run, or even another Rising, might be setting your hopes a little high. (You knew that pun was coming.) If High Hopes had turned out to be nothing more than an excuse for another North American tour, I’d be happy. That we get an hour of solid, at times inspired music while we cross our fingers for that tour is a bonus.
- Record Review No One Asked For: High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen (www.mcwardwrites.com)
- Album Review: Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (www.consequenceofsound.net)
- “High Hopes” Songwriter Tim Scott Explains His Springsteen Connection (bornrockaholic.wordpress.com)
- Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes (norridgemadenoise.wordpress.com)
- High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- A 54-Minute Conversation with Bruce Springsteen (www.rollingstone.com)
- Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes Review (andypompeyreviews.wordpress.com)
- Quick Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes” Album (velvetlemon.wordpress.com)