Whatever else may be said about it, there is no denying that High Hopes is an anomaly in Bruce Springsteen’s career. Whereas Springsteen’s other studio albums are defined by a unifying theme, musical style, or political perspective, High Hopes is decidedly unorganized. It’s a grab bag of outtakes, covers, and re-recordings alongside a few new originals. At times the album feels like a musical survey of The Boss’ last few albums. Take some of The Rising‘s post-9/11 melancholy, place it alongside the populist political outrage of Wrecking Ball, and weave in some of the Celtic flavorings of The Seeger Sessions and you will have some idea of what is in store. What you won’t have is any reason why this album needs to exist-and unfortunately, the album itself does little to clarify this point. High Hopes is a curiously disjointed album with a few standouts mixed in alongside clunkers and misguided covers-it’s anomalous, yes, but not especially interesting.
What it lacks in artistic cohesion, however, High Hopes occasionally makes up for with sheer musicality, making the ride a fitfully enjoyable one. The album kicks off with the title track-a brassy, propulsive number greatly energized by the grungy guitar work of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. The song, which showcases lyrics combining working-class anxiety with transcendent hope in classic Springsteen fashion, is such a natural fit for The Boss that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. But no, “High Hopes” is an obscure 1987 song by Tim Scott McConnell, first recorded by Springsteen in 1995 and re-recorded here with the help of Morello and the E Street Band.
Morello’s influence is all over the album. The distinguished guitarist-who appeared on 2012’s Wrecking Ball and its subsequent tour-had a hand in the song selection and lends his distinctive sound throughout the album. Morello’s contributions enliven old material like “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” two classics that get expansive seven-and-a-half minute treatments on High Hopes.
The first is based on a 1999 Bronx police shooting, an event Springsteen turns into a tragic anthem of racial profiling: “It ain’t no secret, no secret my friend,” he sings, “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.” The song itself is one of Springsteen’s most powerful, deftly building from the hushed, repeated cry of “41 shots” that opens the song to be a bombastic anthem of righteous rage. Yet even as the new recording does justice to the song, the question remains: Why include it? Scattered among the album’s other tracks, the studio version lacks the contextual power it receives in concert-like, for instance, when Springsteen revived it in early 2012 as a response to the Trayvon Martin shooting.
The new version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” however, is quite affecting, turning the sparse acoustic ballad into an electrifying duet between Springsteen and Morello.
The album’s most problematic material, distressingly enough, is found in the new original songs. “Frankie Fell in Love” desperately wants to be a cute little love song, but it’s lazy and full of coy jokes that don’t come off-including appearances from Einstein and Shakespeare, and lines like “World peace’s gonna break out, from here on in we’re eating take out.” Even worse is “This is Your Sword,” a song drenched in Celtic musical vibes which seems to find Springsteen as a knight delivering sage wisdom to his children. Needless to say, Springsteen should stick to modern New Jersey and stay away from the Middle Ages; the song features some of the laziest lyrics he has ever written (“Well this is your sword, this is your shield / This is the power of love revealed”).
At its best, though, High Hopes does remind us of what a great songwriter Springsteen can be. He channels a Ground Zero worker on “Down in the Hole,” a strong track cut from 2002’s The Rising. The song is a slow, haunting, sensitively arranged character portrait. Beginning with a rhythmic metallic pounding and a hushed, distorted vocal from Springsteen, the song quietly builds to a lovely, sad string part before the melancholy final lines: “I’m gonna dig right here until I get you back / Fires keep on burning, I’m here with you in the cold / Down in the hole.” The song demonstrates how good Springsteen is at first-person character portraits-as does “Hunter of Invisible Game,” another album highlight, set to a brisk waltz and full of biblical overtones.
For the dedicated Springsteen fan, it’s worth digging through the uneven terrain of High Hopes for such gems. It’s hard to deny that the album has plenty of filler, though-in fact, you could even say that the album is filler. This impression isn’t helped by the closer: “Dream Baby Dream,” a cover of the 1979 song by Suicide. As Springsteen keeps intoning banal pop cliches-“dream baby dream,” “we gotta keep the light burning,” “come and open up your hearts,” and so on-over the song’s increasingly treacly five minutes, you keep waiting for the song to develop, for something to happen that will redeem the song, or maybe even the album. It never comes, though. Keep dreaming.