For his devoted fan base, the release of a new album from Bruce Springsteen had, for many years, been a cause for celebration. Springsteen became known as an artist who was prolific in his songwriting and, at the same time – because his perfectionist tendencies ensured that he did not release an album until he was ready to do so combined with his penchant for spending several years on the road promoting each album – averaged at least several years between the release of a new album. This pattern tended to amplify the anticipation for his fans.
Over the past dozen years, new releases have come from Springsteen with greater frequency. Excluding his new album, since 2002, he has released five albums of new material (The Rising, Devils & Dust, Magic, Working On a Dream, and Wrecking Ball); an album of folk covers (We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions); a live album (Live in Dublin); and a multi-disc box set (The Promise). And those albums have been met with varying levels of admiration. While Springsteen has proven that he can take songs that are uninspiring on record and turn them into live favorites, even the best-reviewed album of original material (The Rising) has failed to reach the level of admiration among his fans that his early releases have engendered.
As mentioned earlier, Springsteen is an incredibly prolific songwriter. His recording sessions have become legendary through the years not only for the albums that emerge from them, but also for the numerous tracks that he leaves behind; tracks that he has given to others who made them into hits; tracks that became b-sides to hit singles; and tracks that he never released officially, but that would find their way into his live shows or onto bootlegs and become the songs that his most ardent fans would treat like some sort of currency when they wanted to prove their fandom bona fides.
High Hopes, Springsteen’s 18th studio album, is a compilation of tracks that Springsteen has either wanted to cover; written and not released; released and wanted to release in a different version; or released in some manner – but not on a studio album. If that sounds like a recipe for a lack of cohesiveness, it is and it is also a distinct departure from the majority of his releases, which have often been delayed while Springsteen searched for the songs that most perfectly matched his thematic vision for the album.
The singer seemed to attempt to preempt that potential criticism when the album’s release was announced. “This is music I always felt needed to be released,” Springsteen said in a press release. “I felt the songs all deserved a home and a hearing. His fans might not agree entirely with this assessment.
The title track, a cover by Tim Scott McConnell that first appeared on the Blood Brothers EP in 1996, is a worthy opener, with a bit of a Bo Diddley-beat, and a great contribution from his horn section, which almost transforms the song’s themes of heartbreak and struggle into an upbeat number.
Unfortunately, the next track, “Harry’s Place,” which is an outtake from The Rising, sounds like it could have fit in on the Miami Vice soundtrack, where it could have been a weak companion to Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues.” While it’s nice to hear the late Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, this track stops the album dead only two tracks in.
“American Skin (41 Shots),” which was previously released on Springsteen’s 1999 Live in New York, benefited from the live, raw sound that permitted the powerful lyrics to come to the forefront. On High Hopes, the song is overproduced, with a nearly two-minute studio-enhanced ending that does nothing to improve upon a song that was damn near perfect in its original state.
Springsteen’s cover of The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would” will likely be a breezy live companion to “Frankie Fell In Love” and the former hearkens back at times, with its healthy helping of horns in the middle section of the song, to a track that might have been left off of The River, while the latter could have been a Born to Run or Darkness On the Edge of Town cast off. Fans will appreciate both because they each feel like classic 1970s Springsteen tracks.
The uneven nature of the disc is highlighted by tracks like “Down In The Hole,” a track recorded during The Rising sessions – and which would have fit in thematically with that release. The song, which shares an uncanny melodic resemblance to Born in the USA’s “I’m On Fire” is largely forgettable and does not benefit with the production switch at the 1:40 mark (in mid-verse no less) that removes the vocal effect that had masked Springsteen’s voice to that point.
“Heaven’s Wall” and “Hunter of Invisible Game” are both rich with biblical references, the former a gospel-tinged rocket, the latter, a gentle, soporific acoustic piece. Neither sticks with long past the time you hear it; however, “Heaven’s Wall” will likely appear frequently in Springsteen’s upcoming live shows, if only to feature the talents of his backup singers.
“This Is Your Sword,” with its bagpipes feels like a Seeger Sessions outtake and is energetic and boozy, but otherwise not terribly memorable.
“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which was originally the title track on the 1995 album of the same name, appears here in an electrically-charged version, upon which Springsteen shares both vocal and guitar duties with Tom Morello, who had performed a cover of the song in his own live shows, and who appeared frequently with Springsteen to perform the track, prior to his joining the E Street Band’s tour of Australia in March 2013, when he replaced temporarily guitarist Steve Van Zandt (who was unavailable for that leg of the tour.) Much like “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song does not benefit greatly from the shift from acoustic to electric and a pair of psychedelic guitar solos from Morello extend this track to an excessive seven-and-a-half minute running time.
“The Wall,” details a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and is a tribute to Vietnam War veteran Walter Cichon. The sparse acoustic song was performed several times in concert, but which has never received a studio release, is a welcome addition to the album, as is the late Danny Federici’s organ, which plays a prominent role on the track.
The album closes with a cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” a track Springsteen that used as a closer to a number of live shows in the past several years. Unfortunately, the studio version suffers from the same fate of overproduction that befalls some of the other songs that were stunning in a live venue, but that are less striking here.
Springsteen’s fans are likely to have mixed reactions to this uneven disc. It is somewhat unfair to expect a disc of b-sides, covers, etc. to be coherent and cohesive; however, when Springsteen releases a studio album, his fans have been conditioned to expect a thematically-consistent disc.
At the end of the day, a new release from Springsteen is always welcome; however, for all but the completists, High Hopes is unlikely to be considered a must-buy.