High Hopes

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia, 2014


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Bruce Springsteen would probably be the first to admit that he’s a bucketful of contradictions. An ambitious kid who fought his way to the top and immediately hated the glare of the spotlight. An artist who’s bounced back and forth repeatedly between still, somber solo work and raucous anthems played with a band whose population increases every year.

Last but not least, Springsteen is a prolific songwriter and recording artist who for decades was famously neurotic about releasing anything that didn’t feel just right to him, averaging a new album every four or five years—at least until 2005, when he abruptly started churning out new albums every other year.

Springsteen’s sixth studio album since 2004, High Hopes, came together in a rush that leaves it feeling somewhat half-formed, yet undeniably intriguing. While in the process of starting to pull together some tracks for an album he intended to build from unreleased songs from the past decade, he learned that longtime foil Steven Van Zandt would be unavailable for the upcoming Australian leg of the E Street Band’s seemingly never-ending tour. To sub for Van Zandt, Springsteen invited former Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, a Springsteen admirer who’d previously guested on a number of live dates on the Wrecking Ball tour.

Partway through the band’s swing Down Under, Morello suggested they add a cover song—“High Hopes,” originally by the Havalinas—to the live set. In Springsteen’s words, “Tom then proceeded to burn the house down with it.” Sensing lightning in a bottle, Springsteen took the band into the studio immediately, in Sydney, and cut two tracks that ended up on this album: a studio version of “High Hopes” and another cover, of Australian punk band The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would.” From there, says Springsteen, “Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The end result is undeniably a hodgepodge—seven songs featuring Morello’s bold, aggressive guitar work, paired somewhat awkwardly with five without him; three covers (a lot by Springsteen standards); one full-band re-imagining of a well-known acoustic Springsteen tune (“Ghost Of Tom Joad”); the first studio recording of a song the band has been playing live for almost 15 years (“American Skin (41 Shots)”); and, on the three oldest tracks here, heretofore unreleased performances by departed E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici.

The title track, it must be said, does indeed set the house on fire, deploying a 19-person attack featuring the full E Street ensemble, a five-man horn section, a chorus of backing vocalists, and Morello’s screaming, charismatic leads slicing through the whole thing like a straight razor heated to 400 degrees. Despite having featured three great guitarists in its history (Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Springsteen himself), E Street has never really been a “guitar band”; with Morello in the mix that changes, giving the band a second focal point beyond their leader’s distinctive voice and words.

Morello’s work lights up song after song the rest of the way. He adds menace to the back-alley fable “Harry’s Place,” playing his solo off Clemons’ in a way that makes you wish the two could have met and done battle onstage while Clarence was still on this earth. Morello’s furiously inventive leads turn “American Skin (41 Shots)” into a billowing, haunting anthem, and unleash the rage that’s always been hiding inside “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” “Just Like Fire Would” rings with purpose, a great fit for the E Street crew, while “Heaven’s Wall” finds Morello goosing gospel with grit.

The five non-Morello tracks can feel a bit two-dimensional by comparison. “Down In The Hole” is a particularly odd inclusion, a dirge about depression that’s no more engaging than James Taylor’s tedious 1991 song of the same name, and that one suspects may have been pulled from the scrap heap in part because it features not just Clemons and Federici, but also Springsteen’s kids on backing vocals. By contrast, “Frankie Fell In Love” is winning, playful fun, while “The Wall” is a spare and thoughtful sequel to “Born In The USA,” paying tribute again to Vietnam vets. That’s it for highlights in this group, though; “This Is Your Sword” and closer “Dream Baby Dream” find Springsteen at his most self-indulgent, the former a formulaic, stilted message song, the latter an overblown attempt to transform an inconsequential pop tune into a stirring anthem.

Uneven in the extreme, High Hopes nonetheless offers nuggets aplenty for the Springsteen aficionado. As much as you’d like to hear a full album’s worth of material with the fiery Morello on board, you can’t really blame the Boss for wanting the new material gathered here to see daylight sooner rather than later.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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