Arthur Chu: An Appreciation

The reign of divisive Jeopardy champion Arthur Chu came to an end last week. Considering the skill and deftness Chu had managed over the course of his run, his exit was an ignominious one. He was left in third-place after Double Jeopardy (in large measure due to missing on a Daily Double where he had bet everything) and then he missed again in Final Jeopardy with a last-gasp “all-in” wager that left him with a total of $0 for his final game.

Chu had been the Jeopardy champ for 12 games, though to casual viewers such as I his run seemed much longer, as it was interrupted by several weeks of a “Battle of the Decades” tournament featuring Jeopardy champions of times past. As it stands, Chu assembled the third-longest winning streak in the show’s venerable history, ( though it should be noted that until sometime in the early 2000s winners had their runs capped at a maximum of five games) and he will take home just shy of $300,000 for his efforts.

But what will make Chu memorable wasn’t his formidable knowledge of trivia or his game-playing acumen or his substantial success, but rather the surprising amount of vitriol his playing “style” stirred up. It’s fair to say that Chu is about as controversial a contestant as Jeopardy has ever mustered. Though considering the show’s long, mostly-staid history, that’s kind of like being declared the biggest shrimp at the supermarket—a very relative sort of distinction.

Chu raised hackles amongst Jeopardy devotees for a range of reasons. His playing style was unorthodox—instead of methodically going through the board category by category, Chu bounced all over the place trying to root out the all-important daily doubles. Some of his daily-double and Final Jeopardy wagers were unusual, sometimes only a few dollars and often playing to tie rather than win.

These tactics drew the ire of Jeopardy purists who contend that they were indicative of something approximating “poor sportsmanship.” It probably didn’t help Chu’s case that many of his moves were also used by the IBM supercomputer “Watson” when it appeared on the show and brutally thrashed its human opponents.

In truth though, these sorts of formalist complaints about Chu’s strategies are just red herrings. Other players have employed the same gambits in the past (though perhaps not as successfully), and if they can help a competitor win…well isn’t that the point? As Chu himself noted, the contestants are playing for real money and there are substantial (if not necessarily life-changing) amounts at stake during every game. If game-theory can be used to offer some incremental advantages to contestants, what’s wrong with them availing themselves of them?

No, the real antipathy towards Chu stemmed from his perceived “attitude” his detractors were eager to ascribe to him from his time on the show. He’s cocky, he tries to intimidate the other players, he’s too clipped when we selects questions, he cuts-off Alex Trebek’s corny jokes.

All of these so-called faults are really “nontroversies” at heart. Is Chu trying to intimidate his competitors? Maybe, maybe not, and even if he is, so what? As mentioned earlier, its real money at stake. What’s the big deal if he talks over Trebek’s groaners and wince-inducing accents once in a while. That’s more like a public service to viewers than an affront to the game.

There have been other Jeopardy contestants with grating personal tics or cocky demeanours in the past, but few of them have attracted much comment. In fact, I’d argue that any random Wheel of Fortune competitor is usually 8-10 times more annoying than Arthur Chu during his Jeopardy appearances. So why so much anger directed his way?

The first reason is obviously Chu’s outsized success on the show. Most aggravating players only last a game or two and then disappear before they tsunami of Twitter-hate can really build. Beyond that though, things start to get uncomfortable. Because it seems that a lot of the invective ostensibly aimed at Arthur Chu the Jeopardy contestant is in fact bound up with Arthur Chu the person.

I guess the remaining pertinent facts about Arthur Chu here are that for most of his appearances he had kind of a “schlubby” aesthetic going on. His shirts were usually rumpled and his hair kind of mussed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “unkempt,” but he always kind of had the look of someone who just got back from a long day of writing direct mail pieces or selling mutual funds.

The second point, which you likely know or have deduced, is that Arthur Chu is Asian. And while I’m not going to chalk up all of the criticism he garnered to the bogeyman of racism, I feel like that has played a part in it, even if only on some subterranean level.

Judging by all the ads for arthritis medicine, Gold Bond Medicated Powder, and accessible bathtubs that let you “keep your dignity,” I’m going to say that the audience for Jeopardy skews on the old side. By old I also mean “white.” Though out-and-out racists are probably few, I’m guessing that this viewership might be less tolerant than younger demographics. For some of its members, Chu’s race likely informs the negative gestalt they develop around him, in a way that it would not for a white contestant with the same disposition and mannerisms

In all, I found most of the criticism of Chu overblown, much of it unfounded, and some of it unseemly. In the tedious “meet-the-contestants” interstitials and in subsequent media interviews, Chu always came off as an interesting and self-aware guy. He is an amateur theatre enthusiast and an aspiring voice-over actor. It sounds as though both his wife and he have had a hard time muddling through the economic downturn (as many younger couples have). His Jeopardy prowess might be the catalyst that allows them to get a better house, to have children, or to pursue some of their dreams and ambitions with greater confidence.

So, to Arthur Chu I say, “Shine on you crazy diamond.” Like Alex said it was a great run, and we’ll see you at the Tournament of Champions.





Citius, Altius, Superficialis

The 2014 Winter Olympics are entering their home stretch, and like a dutiful Canadian, I have been following along faithfully. But this time out I haven’t found it as easy to be swept up in the fervour of the games. Whether this stems from me now being older than most of the athletes competing or just a generally advancing crotchetiness I can’t say.

The Olympics always seem to catalyze a period where jingoism and hand wringing about national self-worth abounds—at least in Canada. Just as new parents are desperate to find evidence that their baby is “remarkable” through trivial accomplishments like holding his head up or rolling over before his peers, so too do insecure patriots ascribe too much importance to winning medals in obscure and arcane events. At times, it’s as though a country’s merits are self-evident if it takes home the bronze in two-man luge, but in doubt if it only gets fourth. This has on occasion led to the mind-blowing spectre of competitors “apologizing” to their countrymen if their performances leave them short of the podium—or sometimes on the podium but short of its top.

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Get Off My Porch, Chum

Friday night, 7:45 p.m. There’s an unexpected knock at the door, who could it be? Is it my mom coming to visit her grandson? My sister coming to visit her nephew? A neighbour coming to borrow a cup of sugar that is needed for some mid-evening meringues?

I open the door. It’s some dude I don’t recognize, wearing a plastic ID badge and holding a clipboard. I reluctantly crack the screen door. He launches into a rapid-fire speech that’s reminiscent of an old Micro Machines commercial.

“Hi good evening I’m here with National and we’re working on the street this week putting in all the new high-efficiency water heaters that everyone is getting installed and we’re just checking the water heaters in the area and you rent your water heater right? well I just need to come down to your basement just for a minute to see if it has the energy star symbol on it and if it doesn’t you could be eligible for an upgrade and it will only take a second so should I leave my boots on or take them off?”

The guy has practically wedged himself inside the screen door at this point. No buddy, you aren’t coming in; you aren’t taking your boots off. The only thing you’re gonna be doing with those boots of yours is marching yourself back down to the street with them.

The guy was still yapping as I closed and locked the door, like a pull-string kids’ toy, the kind that won’t stop its pre-recorded spiel until the plastic loop comes to rest in Big Bird’s butt again. He was with National Home Services, the company that launched a thousand complaints to the Better Business Bureau and even helped inspired the province to change its laws around door-to-door selling.

This is (at least) the third time since October that I’ve had pushy hot water tank salespeople darken my doorstep. The first was in October when I was out of town. That particular character insinuated to my wife that he was with the company we rent from (Reliance Home Comfort) and was there to check on the unit. It wasn’t until he was in our basement and taking out paperwork for our prospective new tank (complete with a 10 or 15-year contract with usurious terms) that he revealed he was with another company.

The second time was on a frigid night in December. The young woman got snippy in a hurry when I told her I wasn’t interested. Well sorry lady, but let’s try to remember that you came here to bother me. I don’t know what combination of poor life choices and bad luck leads a person to selling water tank rentals door-to-door in -20 Celsius weather, but you have my sympathy for whatever that’s worth.

I don’t get all the interest around hot water tanks. We pay $49 quarterly to rent ours. I think about it as much as I do questions such as, “which modern actor would make the best Marshal Dillon in a Gunsmoke reboot?” But we’ve had more than unwelcome in-person solicitors to worry about vis-a-vis our hot water situation.

I’m talking to you Reliance Home Comfort. I realize we have a customer-service provider relationship, and you are within your rights to call us, even if it is for a dubious product such as a “hot water heater protection plan.” However, I tend to think that it is a step too far for you to call my wife on a weekday, during business hours at her work phone number that we have never before provided to you, in order to discuss said plan. Yes, I know it is the information age and all, and I’m heartened that someone at your company knows how to use Google. But isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

After all Reliance Home Comfort, how would you like it if I started cold calling your call centre reps trying to pitch them some value-added services while they are on duty? My three-day training course, How Not to be a Jackass: Master Class, is an especially good value at just $3,995.99 and would be extremely beneficial for your employees. Participants get a signed certificate of completion at the end, and a miniature cat o’ nine tails that they can use to swat themselves with if they catch themselves engaging in any jackassery in the future. Not ready to make a four-thousand dollar commitment? Well I also have an audio-book version available, and I believe your company will qualify for a bulk order discount!

Its not just hot water causing us grief, water of all temperatures has been a problem. In spring 2013, our house got a phone call about a “water quality survey.” Municipal water services has been a big issue locally the past few years, and the previous fall I had answered a public opinion survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid, if memory serves. Maybe this was a follow-up. “Alright, I’ll take the questionnaire,” I say to the caller on the phone. Oh, no, no, no—he has a man in the area who will come over to do the survey in person.

Seemed a little odd to me, but I knew that field researchers did in-person stuff sometimes. The guy asks if my wife well be there, because they don’t send their employees out if only males are on the premises because “one of our female reps was attacked last year.” He says this to me suspiciously, as though he thinks the odds are pretty good that I might be a violent psychopath or have a sex dungeon in my basement. I should’ve told him to stuff his head up his ass right then.

A few minutes later a kid shows up with a little suitcase full of gear and I know what kind of dog and pony show I am in for right away, but there seems no way out except to let things run their course. His company is working “with” the city and he’s not there to sell us anything. Yeah right. He goes through his interminable demo with his strips of acetate paper and his water tester, and eventually we get to the pitch.

Sorry mate, but I woke up this morning with certain expectations for the day: I’m going to go to work; I’m going to walk the dog; I might change a diaper or two; I’ll probably cook dinner; maybe I’ll write for a bit once my son goes to bed. You know what wasn’t on that list? Buying a $7,500 water filtration system. I don’t care that I (and my heirs) have the option of paying it off in $34.95 installments from now until the heat-death of the universe.

Say what you will about the wisdom Government of Ontario, but ever since the Walkerton tragedy it has adopted some of the most stringent water quality standards of anywhere in the world. As such, I’m pretty confident that the water flowing from my tap is safe to drink and wash with, occasional chlorine overtones notwithstanding. So my friend, I’m not going to react as if I have been drinking deuterium all this time on account of it having one or two parts per million more copper than you suggest it should.

I wish now that I could remember the name of the company the kid (who in fairness was a pleasant enough person himself) was with. I think they were based in Ottawa. Their approach was predicated on the same sort of disingenuousness and hard sell tactics made famous by Green Life Water Filtration, though I think it was a different outfit this time.

Anyways, to direct salespeople of the world visiting or calling this neighbourhood, here is what I have to say. I realize that you are just trying to eke out a living in a still-lagging economy. I realize that not all of you are deceitful or unethical. I understand that a small fraction of the houses you call on may be a good fit for what you have to offer. Maybe there are a few people who don’t mind paying $4,500 over a 15-year rental agreement period for a hot water heater that would cost $1,000 to buy outright; perhaps there are a couple of affluent households who want a Cadillac filtration system for their drinking water.

But this is an area with mixed-demographics. There are young first-time owners who might be baffled into thinking they are getting a good deal by all the fast-talking. There are seniors who grew up in a more trusting and credulous time. There are widows and widowers, some of whom likely relied on their late spouses to worry about hot water tanks and dealing with the utility company. These are people vulnerable to being scammed. I’m sure that most don’t need and that many can ill-afford the things you are hawking. That’s why there will be one more letter of complaint reaching the BBB about National Home Services soon, this one with my signature affixed, and there will be similar missives issued for any other high-pressure companies that come to this door henceforth.

Still with all that said, I’m not 100 per cent opposed to door-to-door sales. I don’t have a “No Soliciting” sign or my “Labrador Retriever On Duty” notice posted in the window. If you are a Boy Scout selling apples, or a Girl Guide peddling cookies then knock away. If you are a volunteer canvassing the neighbourhood to raise funds for some worthy cause, then let me get my chequebook.

But, if the paragraph above doesn’t describe what you have to sell, then when your feet bring you within sight of my porch, you’d best just keep on walking pal.

A Year in Words

When I was a teenager, I read an article about author W.P. Kinsella where it said that he wrote 900 words every day. “That can’t take more than an hour or two; some life these professional writers have!” is what I remember thinking at the time.

Then inevitable rejoinder is, “well, why don’t you try it?” And the answer of course is that such output is harder to manage than it sounds. A writer who hit Kinsella’s daily quota would grind out just under 330,000 words over the course of the year—enough for about four novels of respectable length.

It was about a year ago now that I began work on what became my first eBook. So with this nostalgic anniversary on the door step, I thought I would reflect on the past year’s writing totals.

The first draft of 25 Principles clocked in at close to 110,000 words. My Springsteen project currently sits at about 50,000. I have another pot-boiler project that totals 10,000 and since November, I would estimate I have churned out another 10,000 or so in postings for this blog. So my sum total from end of January 2013 to end of January 2014 would be around 180,000.

That sounds impressive, though I doubt that it counts as being prolific output. In the indie publishing world, there are people who claim they grind out 20,000 sometimes as many as 50,000, words in a single week. If I wrote full-time, I think I might hit 20,000 over a very good seven day period; I don’t know how anyone would reach 50,000 without the assistance of methamphetamines.

Still, that 180,000 total feels significant. There is an old writer’s maxim that states that every writer has “a million words of crap” that they have to discharge from their system before they start producing work that can be considered “good.” It’s kind of a variation on Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of the 10,000 hour rule. The figure of one million words isn’t a hard and fast one; some writers contend that the threshold could actually be as low as 693,000.

In any event, I feel like I have served a good chunk of a long apprenticeship now. The past year’s output forms a big part of it, but my training has been underway for far longer. The journey has included hundreds of press releases, endless scrolls of web copy—not to mention the horrible fiction writing attempts of my younger years.

The incremental nature of writing (and getting better at it) is a bit like the old philosophical puzzle of how many grains make a heap. I don’t know exactly what I have right now or what I am moving towards. It probably isn’t mastery but it’s something.


A Painful Case: The Sad Story of Dr. V

We think we know better, but a part in each of us wants to see the world unfold with the simple morality of a fairy tale. We’re at ease when situations and people can be divided into convenient dichotomies: good and evil; heroes and villains; victims and perpetrators. We acknowledge all the gray shadings but reach for the old rubric anyways, the dualisms, the choosing of sides.

Once upon a time, the story of Essay Anne Vanderbilt (aka Dr. V) seemed like a simple one. She was the mysterious founder of Yar Golf and the inventor of the Zero MOI Putter. Her putter was the subject of a breathless infomercial, but it had also attracted high praise from the rarefied (and one would presume knowledgeable) world of professional golf. For writer Caleb Hannan, the assignment was straightforward: find this inventor, talk to her and those who endorsed her, and find out if the club legitimately worked.

When Hannan first contacted Vanderbilt, she emphasized that she wanted him to focus on, “the science and not the scientist.” However, her grandiose pronouncements and penchant for self-promotion made that a difficult proposition. Vanderbilt said that she had helped build the stealth bomber, and was on the team that invented Bluetooth technology. She claimed to have come up with the idea for the Zero MOI Putter while working at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.

Along the way, those claims and credentials would be irrefutably debunked. In his finished piece, Hannan also revealed that Dr. V was formerly a man, and in a sad coda, that she had committed suicide before the story was completed.

When the long-form story was first published on Grantland on Wednesday January 15, 2014, it received plaudits at first and a storm of criticism shortly thereafter. The site was accused of everything from having poor judgement, to being exploitative, to being transphobic. Hannan was redressed for “outing” Vanderbilt against her will in his piece and to one of her company’s investors, with some commentators suggesting he bore some responsibility for her suicide He also received numerous death threats.

Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons delivered a mea culpa on January 22, offering apologies to those offended, defending Hannan, pouring some ashes over his head and those of the other editorial staffers, and generally promising to be more sensitive next time out. The site also posted an op-ed from fellow ESPN writer Christina Karhl, detailing problems with the writing from the standpoint of the transgendered community.

So now, here is the inflection point where you are supposed to choose. Whom do you side with? How do you apportion the blame? Vanderbilt was the one who fabricated a gossamer persona and back-story and invited the scrutiny that led to its disintegration; Hannan was the one who took a personal detail and made more hay out of it than he needed to. Vanderbilt clearly didn’t want her transgendered status to become public knowledge; when Hannan was faced with a subject revealed to be mostly artifice, the question then became, what is the truth? And while Vanderbilt’s past as a man comprised part of that truth, was it fair or just to reveal it?

While Hannan’s piece itself has some issues, it’s clear that he didn’t set out to be a Kitty Kelley style takedown artist. At the beginning, he seems like Fox Mulder of X-Files: wanting to believe. He is initially credulous about Vanderbilt’s fantastic claims. And when the discrepancies begin to appear he gives her opportunity to explain them. But when he finds out that Vanderbilt lived as Stephen Kroll for the first 50 years of her life, you can see the gears turning in his mind—here’s the hook: Dr. V was born a man. Because otherwise we’ve seen this story before—journalist meets eccentric fabulist, eccentric fabulist is undone by their lies and contradictions, end scene. The transgender angle kicks the “not what they appeared to be” storyline into overdrive.

Though I understand Hannan’s choices, I sympathize with Vanderbilt. I read Hannan’s piece after reading the post-mortems from Simmons and Karhl first and the advance knowledge of how everything ended puts a suffocating layer of dread over the article.

When I was a kid, our local community college used to hold bridge building competitions for elementary school students. Participants constructed miniature trestles out of packages of balsa wood and glue, and then they were tested beneath a pneumatic press to see how much weight they could hold before they crumpled and failed. And that is what reading Vanderbilt’s increasingly desperate and inchoate responses to Hannan reminded me of, the gradual buildup of this inexorable and crushing weight, the glue cracking, the wood splintering.

Clearly, it was a mistake for such a fragile person to weave together such an outlandish fantasy and then bring it into the public square, the world of golf pros, infomercials, and curious journalists, when one tug at any single thread could cause the whole tapestry to unravel. But as Hannan himself wondered, were her sins very great? In a country that still regards P.T. Barnum as more folk-hero than charlatan, and where overheated infomercial claims are de rigeur, was Dr. V guilty of anything more than simple puffery?

The more I seek answers, the more I find only dissonance. I understand the logic that led Vanderbilt to create her elaborate “Dr. V” mythos; I understand why Hannan destroyed it. The tragedy is that the whole thing wasn’t really needed. The “mad scientist” trope has its appeal, but just as irresistible is the idea of the “unlikely prodigy:” the savant who emerges from their garage or basement with a new product, computer program, or work of art that blows everyone away. A golf putter doesn’t need a comic book hero’s origin story.

In the end, the case of Dr. V is a tale with no winners, only losers. An inventor dead before her time, a writer burdened with a measure of infamy to live down, victims of happenstance as much as anything, two satellites drawn into each other’s orbit and set on a collision course.

The pain comes from knowing that so much of it was avoidable. Somewhere, in some happier alternate reality, there was a great article to be had. An inventor with limited knowledge of golf and club fabrication creates a revolutionarily different style of putter that attracts praise from pro golf’s upper echelons. How did she do it? What inspired her? Did it actually work as advertised? Those would have been the only questions Hannan would have needed. And the answers would have been compelling enough.



Playing in the driveway with my sister and Papa, many moons ago.

It wasn’t long ago that I had reason to feel myself very fortuitous in terms of family longevity. On the north side of 30, I had three of my four grandparents still living. They had lived to see me into adulthood and to see the arrival of my son—the first great-grandchild—in 2012. They all delighted in him and he always got a big charge out of them too. He is still only a toddler now, too young to form memories, but I had hopes that he might know them all as a pre-schooler and be able to remember them when he was older.

It was not to be; my grandmother passed away in mid-October, my Nana and Papa last week, unexpectedly and suddenly within 24 hours of each other. They each died from unrelated health reasons, like a plot point in some hackneyed novel. “Couldn’t be apart,” is what I keep repeating to myself, searching for something optimistic but not really finding it. Once relatively flush with grandparents, now I am bereft.

Grief has made a narcissist out of me. I have three people (really four) to remember; I should be writing about their lives, their accomplishments, their personalities—and yet here I am, dwelling on myself, ceaselessly. Sometimes this inward turn feels appropriate. It feels like I have to keep going, that this is my way of paying tribute in some Darwinian sense. Because I carry parts of them with me, and I gaze at my dull face in the mirror to try and discern what they are, just as I now study my son’s handsome features closely to try and glimpse what irreducible elements have been passed down to him.

Coming to terms with the death of elderly relatives is a matter of finding the right proportionality. Beyond a certain threshold of age you are always a bit ready for it, while still being unprepared when it does happen. And so in October and now I have striven to deploy what seems like the right response: sad but not too sad, mature and accepting, grateful for the good times.

And for the most part, I have managed it. Even when the shock from this latest double-blow was still new, I went to work. I functioned normally. I talked with co-workers and acquaintances without hint of being distraught. I walked the dog, shoveled snow from the driveway, cooked dinner, and did all the other things that still needed doing. Because there is always something clamouring for attention and life is a moving sidewalk that bears us along even when we want to stand still.

And in some self-congratulatory moments, I look at my mostly unchanged comportment this past week and delude myself into thinking that this is indicative of me possessing some admirable degree of masculine strength. But it’s more likely a sign that some inner part of me has become calcified. With rationalism and chosen unfeeling, I have locked it away and now I am mostly successful at ignoring it.

I grew up separated by geography from my grandparents and the rest of my extended family. It wasn’t insurmountable distance—a day’s drive, an hour’s flight—but it was enough to pose a barrier. I remember when I was young, four or five, how I would cry uncontrollably when it came time for the visit to my grandparents to end and how I would beg to stay. It didn’t matter what reasoned explanations I received or how terribly I made everyone else feel; all that mattered was my sadness.

But as self-centred as I was and as and embarrassed as I felt about my childishness when I was older, there was also a great abiding love for my grandparents manifest in my tears and pleas. And there are moments now where I counter-intuitively wish that I could feel that way again, to be consumed with grief, to be left inconsolable. Beyond my needs for catharsis, it seems that would be an appropriate way to mourn, to externalize how much I cared for and loved them. Because if my heart is broken, why does it carry on without missing a beat?

I know it is a vain hope; the ability to grieve so deeply and freely seems lost to me now, washed away like a child’s sandcastle on a beach. I have my memories of the past for comfort, of how my grandparents were and of how I was. And now too, I have an adult’s forlorn knowledge that in time I will learn to accept the pain of being unable to return to them.


Record Review No One Asked For: High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen

Today marks the “official” release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, High Hopes. I pre-ordered my copy already so it should be along in a day or two, but I’ve already streamed the album online many times over, as part of my research for the Springsteen 99 project that is winding onwards.

Having immersed myself in all things Springsteen for the last six weeks or thereabouts, I feel like I’m in a good position to offer some thoughts on the new album from The Boss. If you’re fan or just Bruce-curious, the review below might help you decide if High Hopes is worth checking out.

Review of High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen

A long-time supporter of many social justice causes, with High Hopes Bruce Springsteen demonstrates his concern for the environment, as fully 50 per cent of the album is constructed from recycled materials. high hopes thumb

Of the 12 songs on the record, three are covers (including the title track, which Springsteen previously recorded in the studio), one (The Ghost Of Tom Joad) was the title track of an earlier album, another was released on a live album and compilation package (American Skin), and another has been played in concert numerous times (The Wall). That leaves six songs that could be credibly construed as “new,” but even these trace their roots back to between the late 90s and mid-2000s, and in most cases earlier recordings have been used with some modern overdubs grafted on top.

So herein lies the philosophical problem for serious Springsteen aficionados. High Hopes has been relentlessly marketed as Springsteen’s “18th studio album,” when in fact it’s more like a compilation or an anthology of studio recordings. It’s closer to being one of those patchwork “B-Sides and Rarities” releases that artists used to put out to help fulfill their recording contracts, than a “true” album.

That’s the big hang-up with High Hopes, but if you can get past it or learn to ignore it, then this newest release becomes a worthwhile offering. The disparate nature of the material prevents it from hanging together as a great album, but the songs are enjoyable, vigorous, and consistently interesting. Some of the musical dynamism comes courtesy of Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who brings his wizardry to bear on eight of the 12 tracks.

The lead song is the titular High Hopes, which is a cover of a Tim Scott McConnell composition. On record, the song just doesn’t do it for me; it feels like a car revving its engine in neutral—a lot of noise but not much movement, though it’s supposedly a barnburner when played in concert. A few more songs also have issues. This Is Your Sword is middling folk rock, while the energetic Heaven’s Wall tries to fuse together styles ranging from gospel to hard rock but ends up sounding muddled.

Fortunately, other tracks are more successful. The second cut is Harry’s Place, a song originally written and recorded during sessions for The Rising in 2002. Harry’s Place unspools a yarn about an underworld fixer and the desperate characters who come to him for assistance. The song has an unexpected sleazy charm, driven by pulsing bass and wah guitar. Clarence Clemons appears on the track with a saxophone solo that could be background music for someone flipping open a briefcase full of cocaine in a pay-by-the-hour motel room.

The energetic Just Like Fire Would is another strong entrant. The song is a cover of an Australian punk band called The Saints whom Springsteen is an admirer of, and it sounds like he does them justice with his muscular rendition. The swaying Hunter of Invisible Game is another solid effort, as is the don’t-think-too-hard fun of Frankie Fell In Love.

The first-half highlight of the album and its best original track is the astounding Down In The Hole. It’s a delicate assemblage that weaves together banjo, multiple backing vocals, violin, samples, and the backbeat from I’m On Fire to tell the story of a haunted 9/11 rescue worker. Springsteen’s vocal begins with a filtered effect that suddenly drops off mid-line in the second verse—as though his character has punched through a layer of rubble to reach the body of a victim. It’s an inspired conceit, one that takes an eerie song (and one of Springsteen’s best latter-day compositions) to stunning heights.

Interestingly, it’s probably the most well-known songs on High Hopes that provoke the most mixed-feelings. The Ghost of Tom Joad, sung here as a duet/guitar freak-out with Morello, is paradoxically one of the album’s strongest tracks while also being it’s most gratuitous. The incendiary on-stage performances of the song by Springsteen, Morello, and the band have rightly become legendary. But to re-record it here, after it headlined another studio album, and to stretch it out to almost 7:30 in length is the definition of indulgence: enjoyable but not necessary.

There’s more dissonance to be found with American Skin (41 Shots). While it’s nice to have a studio recording of one of Bruce’s best post-2000 songs captured for posterity, the version here is over-long and over-processed. The live performance from Live In NYC is shorter, better, and should remain definitive.

The album closes with a pair of highlights. The penultimate track is The Wall, an affecting tribute to a local Asbury Park musician named Walter Cichon who was killed in Vietnam. CIchon was someone whom a teenaged Springsteen admired when he was growing up. The song details Springsteen’s visit to the Vietnam Memorial and uses understated acoustic guitar, organ, and trumpet to build a gentle elegy.

The album closes with a dazzling cover of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, a song that vies for the title of best track on the album with Down In The Hole.  Springsteen began playing Dream Baby Dream during 2005’s Devils and Dust solo tour; the version on High Hopes is an expanded and more polished take. The song begins floating on a wave of harmonium and then builds into an insistent, orchestral hymn, providing a poignant but hopeful coda to the collection. A video of the song was released to commemorate the end of the Wrecking Ball tour in 2013. Near the end, there are clips of late E Street Band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. For Springsteen sentimentalists, it’s hard to watch without being moved.

The Bottom Line:
Springsteen used to build albums with the painstakingness of a master chef preparing a grand banquet, but in recent times, he seems increasingly willing to whip together a meal out of whatever ingredients happen to be near at hand. As he nears pensioner age, it gets harder to begrudge him doing this, and as High Hopes proves the results can still be mostly-appetizing. However, next time it would be nice if he breaks out the good china again and serves up something scratch-made instead of cobbled together from leftovers.

There’s much good in High Hopes, but as a whole, the album contains more vitality than necessity. However, if you can accept it for what it is rather than what it purports to be, you’ll probably enjoy listening. For moderate fans (and above) I would rate it a buy. Casual followers can afford to give it a pass, while for neophytes there are better entry points available.

Final Grade:
B –