Thursday, January 09, 2014

With 'High Hopes,' Springsteen Meets Mine -- Album Review

Album Review

Bruce Springsteen
High Hopes

Although I always have High Hopes whenever a new Bruce Springsteen album is announced, given the Boss' smorgasbord approach to his so-named latest release—including cover songs, outtakes and tunes long part of his live canon—I didn't expect this would be a record to rank with his masterpieces, nor even exceed most of his 21st century output.

But, except for the bulk of Human Touch, there has never been a Springsteen album I haven't found enjoyable and worthwhile—even Working on a Dream was pretty solid beyond the title song and cover art—and this continues with High Hopes.

No, it is not Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town, nor even The Rising or Magic. If you are not a Springsteen fan, this is not the album you should start with.

But while all the songs were written awhile ago and have never made their way onto a studio album, despite lacking the thematic cohesion that earmarks Bruce's best records—including 2012's Wrecking BallHigh Hopes is by no means a "throwaway" album.

Some Springsteen fanatics might begrudge the fact that 6 of the album's 12 songs are already familiar, thanks to renditions heard in concert, on official or bootleg live recordings or via YouTube clips. This serves to make High Hopes not truly sound like a "new" album, and it also lacks the vast sense of hidden treasure that accompanied archival releases like Tracks, disc 3 of the Essential Bruce Springsteen or The Promise.

But—after several streaming listens ahead of the album's official release on Tuesday—I really like it.

Sure, there are the songs I've heard before—"American Skin (41 Shots)," "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (electrified, with Tom Morello's staggering guitar solo's), "The Wall" and 3 covers that also aren't entirely new for Bruce: the title song, "Just Like Fire Would," "Dream Baby Dream"—but they all sound good and many are souped up from past renditions due to the participation of Rage Against the Machine's Morello, who toured Australia last year with the E Street Band when Steven Van Zandt was off filming Lilyhammer in Norway.

And while I'm still acclimating to the previously unheard songs, and not yet finding any of them to be tunes I'd want swapped out for "Badlands" or "Backstreets" the next time I see Bruce live, all of them are pretty strong and, honestly, better than most of what passes for new rock music these days.

They may not be as operatic or anthemic as the songs that made Springsteen a superstar, but "Harry's Place," "This is Your Sword," "Heaven's Wall," "Frankie Fell in Love," "Down in the Hole" and "Hunter of Invisible Game" are all quality works that were obviously not lightly selected from the Boss' vast backlog.

I particularly like rousing "Heaven's Wall," which infuses gospel as it rocks, and the fun "Frankie Fell in Love," which works in Einstein and Shakespeare sharing a beer, but the others are sounding good as well.

I've read some other reviews that decry Morello's guitar stylings—he plays on several tracks—as not meshing with the sound of the E Street Band. I haven't noticed this at all and appreciate how he has brought some new vitality; I wouldn't mind seeing Springsteen and him collaborate on truly new material.

So far, High Hopes—understandably given the cover songs and the way it was cobbled together—hasn't had me overtly dazzled by the lyrics (except for "American Skin" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad").

And I don't foresee that I or anyone—including the Boss himself—will ever cite High Hopes as one of their very favorite Bruce Springsteen albums.

But having created a legendary legacy by the time he was 35, I'm impressed by how strong Bruce's work has continued to be in the 21st century. In fact, I don't think any other rocker has ever been as prolific, passionate and just plain great past the age of 50—both on record and even more so on stage—as the now 64-year-old Boss.

If you're hoping for this album to be a bold, brilliant artistic statement to equal Springsteen best work, you're apt to be disappointed. But if you can be contented with a group of high-quality songs that sound good, fit adequately well together despite their disparate origins and make for an enjoyable listen—repeatedly—meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss. 

Especially with the ability to hear it for free—here for now and on Spotify upon official release—there is no reason not to check out High Hopes, which has sufficiently met mine.

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