Album Review: Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes'
For Bruce Springsteen fans— and I am an unabashed, unapologetic one— dropping the needle on a new album is a moment full of excitement, hopeful expectation, and not a small amount of anxiety. For longtime fans, we have a lot— perhaps too much— invested in Springsteen because we know how good his music can make us feel and the deliverance it can provide at its peak.
With “High Hopes,” out officially Jan. 14, but streaming on CBS.com now, fans didn’t know quite what to expect since the album is a mix of three covers, some already familiar songs newly recorded with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, and a handful of never released tunes.
Such an odds-and-sods collection can be just an excuse to dump old material, but here, Springsteen has created an album that, surprisingly, hangs together pretty well (despite a few bumpy transitions such as from “American Skin” into “Just Like Fire Would”). Springsteen has written about dashed hopes and disappointments his entire career, so bringing together a number of songs on the topic that span more than a decade doesn’t provide any major conceptual challenge.
Produced largely by “Wrecking Ball’s” Ron Aniello, “High Hopes” marks the first time Springsteen has recorded a studio album while he was on tour and the result is an energy that leaps out from much of the material, including the title track. Plus, he’s excited as a puppy with a new pal over the freshness he feels Morello, who filled in for Steven Van Zandt on the Australian leg last year, brings to the band. Even if you don’t agree with his assessment of Morello, who plays on eight tracks here, there’s no denying the pep Morello adds to Springsteen’s already damn peppy step.
Not every album has to be a masterpiece —and this is not one— but nor should it be discounted as a placeholder or a throwaway. Instead, it’s as Springsteen called it in his own words, a bit of an “anomaly.” For hardcore fans, you’ll hear traces of previously recorded songs in most of these and part of the fun is figuring out where you would have sequenced them on past albums.
As Springsteen showed on 1998’s “Tracks,” the excellent 4-CD box set of songs that didn’t make earlier albums, a tune doesn’t always get cut because it’s bad—most of the tracks here are far above average—they just needed to wait a little longer for their time in the spotlight.
“High Hopes” doesn’t bring the rush of a new album full of a batch of recently-birthed songs, but it still has plenty of delights.
Below is a track-by-track review of “High Hopes”:
“High Hopes”: The title track and first single, a cover of a song by LA-based band The Havalinas written by Tim Scott McConnell, is a tight, percussion and horn-driven mid-tempo rocker that is a good shuffler for concert. Lyrically it kicks off the album with a certain amount of world weariness-yet-hopefulness- that hints at what’s to come. GRADE: B
“Harry’s Place”: Gritty and propulsive, “Harry’s Place” has some good lyrics, but thematically and production wise, it sounds like it would have fit in perfectly to an episode of “Miami Vice” in the mid-‘80s, which is strange since it was written around 2007 about the Bush administration for the excellent “Magic” album. Singing part of the song through a bullet mike and the rest in a gravelly, mysterious voice does the tune no favors (though it worked great on "Reason To Believe"). Morello’s shredding is somewhat wasted here. Admit it, you can hear Glenn Frey singing this right after he finishes “You Belong To the City.” GRADE: C
“American Skin (41 Shots)”: Originally written to protest the brutal 1999 police killing of Amadou Ballo Diallo —he was an unarmed black immigrant whom the police shot at 41 times—and first performed on the reunion tour in 2000, “American Skin” has matured gracefully. On the newly recorded version, Springsteen trades in some of the anger of the original for a sense of melancholy and resignation, especially in light of the Trayvon Martin killing. The verse about the mother reminding her son to never talk back to the police retains its initial sadness, although the song still feels unwieldy. GRADE: B-
“Just Like Fire Would”: Originally recorded by Australian band The Saints (and covered by Springsteen during this tour down under), this jangly upbeat track will thrill fans of tunes like “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” It’s about as pop as Springsteen gets and is a reminder of how great he sounds when he indulges his pure pop side. Nice Beatlesque horns life the track even higher. GRADE: B
“Down In The Hole”: Produced by Brendan O’Brien and originally written for “The Rising,” the mid-tempo, organ-drenched tune is about 9/11 as he sings about “wake to find my city’s gone to black...” and “I’m going to dig right here until I get you back.” There’s a chugging beat similar to “I’m on Fire.” Quietly devastating. GRADE: B
“Heaven’s Wall”: A repetitive, clap-along, gospel-inflected song that consists mainly of “Raise your hands, raise your hands, raise your hands... “ for lyrics. Springsteen does biblical references and gospel well, especially in the refrain of songs like “The Rising,” and this is more of a chance for him to do that without the heaviness. You don’t find yourself saying this often about a Springsteen tune, but there’s a great dance remix in here dying to be made. GRADE: B
“Frankie Fell In Love”: A loose-limbed track that starts acoustic and then bursts into a full-on band tune originally recorded for “Magic.” Between Springsteen’s relaxed vocals, country inflections, and generally upbeat tone: “it all starts with a kiss,” as he reminds us, “Frankie” is a fun, lightweight track that’s not meant to have any deeper meaning. GRADE: B-
“This Is Your Sword”: Celtic-flavored “This Is Your Sword” is an upbeat sweet song about “giving all the love you have in your soul” on the battlefield of love. Musically, it’s redolent of “American Land” and fans of “The Seeger Sessions” will love it for its acoustic drive. It’s good on record, but it’s one of those tracks that could really soar live. GRADE: B
“Hunter of Invisible Game”: One of the best tracks on the album, produced by Brendan O’Brien. The lilting, string-laden waltz beat is in contrast to the lyrics that are quite dark as he sinks down to the valley “where the beast has its throne.” It’s a track where everything gels about the passage of time and love. It’s easy to get lost in and it features one of his best, if Dylanesque, vocals. GRADE: A-
“The Ghost of Tom Joad”: As fans who have witnessed it in person know, Morello’s addition on the title track from the 1995 album turns it into a ferocious monster with Morello and Springsteen trading guitar licks between singing about the loss of the American Dream. Morello started performing the tune with the band in 2008 and the version here is pretty similar to the one fans hear live with Springsteen generously handing the keys to the car to Morello, who soars off into prog-rock territory during this last extended solo. Despite the pyrotechnics, the song still retains its original poignancy and call for justice. GRADE: B+
“The Wall”: A mournful track about Vietnam that even references Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who led the escalation of U.S. troops in that war. Elegant and ghostly, Springsteen sings in the track about the wall that built up around the soldiers and their families and about the Vietnam Wall memorial in D.C. Stark and haunting and unforgiving: not toward the soldiers who fought, but to those who sent them there. GRADE: A-
“Dream Baby Dream”: Springsteen began performing a hypnotic version of the Suicide tune around 2005 with just him and an organ on the “Devils & Dust” solo tour. This studio version is shorter and loses a little of the mesmerizing intensity of the live version with some added instrumentation. It’s more of a sweet benediction than the magnetic solo version, but compelling nonetheless. Plus, from “The Wall” to “Dream Baby Dream” is the album’s best transition. GRADE: B
Will you buy "High Hopes?"