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 –