BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: HIGH HOPES (2014)
1) High Hopes; 2) Harry's Place; 3) American Skin (41 Shots); 4) Just Like Fire Would; 5) Down In The Hole; 6) Heaven's Wall; 7) Frankie Fell In Love; 8) This Is Your Sword; 9) Hunter Of Invisible Game; 10) The Ghost Of Tom Joad; 11) The Wall; 12) Dream Baby Dream.
I guess it's a big help for us all to see the ol' Boss still asserting his masculinity with such confident posture on the cover of his nine billionth studio album, but wait ten more years and people will start mixing him up with Clint Eastwood, and then where will we be? Another question is whether a brand new album from the Boss is really necessary, when we have not yet completed our disappointment ritual with Wrecking Ball? Why does he refuse to come to terms with the fact that millions of fans all over the world just want to hear ʽBorn In The USAʼ and ʽBorn To Runʼ, because they don't have time to learn all those new words?
Actually, High Hopes is a bit of a cop-out. On most of his previous albums, Bruce had freely resorted to resuscitating some of his outtakes and older raw ideas, but High Hopes is the first one in a long time, if not ever, to consist almost exclusively of outtakes and old ideas — even a casual fan like me immediately recognizes ʽAmerican Skin (41 Shots)ʼ, which was played as early as the Live In New York City tour, and, of course, ʽThe Ghost Of Tom Joadʼ is not just a re-recording of the old title track from that one LP, but a studio take on a live electric version with Tom Morello that Bruce had also been playing since God knows when (I know I first saw it on the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in 2009 and was duly impressed with Morello's fireworks, and here you have them all over again). Information on the provenance of the other songs is easy to come by as well, but we shall not dwell too much on trivia here.
Instead, the good news is that, for all of its mixed nature, High Hopes somehow ends up being more interesting and involving than Wrecking Ball — maybe precisely because the man had no single, obsessive, and poorly executed concept here, but simply rounded up a bunch of isolated good ideas and left them for us to piece together. There's some of that traditional Seeger-inspired folk rock here, some typical old school Springsteen epics, and some really odd stuff, like the title track, which was originally written and recorded by the obscure artist Tim Scott McConnell, a.k.a. «Ledfoot», the self-proclaimed creator of the «Gothic blues» genre; actually, Bruce recorded his first version of the song as early as 1996, but this is a totally reinvented version, with Morello's pyrotechnics and a crazed-out Latin brass rhythm section turning the tune into a tribal dance round the fire (funny enough, the drum intro almost tricks you into thinking that the band is all but ready to launch into Led Zeppelin's ʽRock'n'Rollʼ — probably an accident, though).
The songs, as usual, are relatively simple and often tremendously repetitive, which is excusable on folk stylizations like ʽDream Baby Dreamʼ (a cover of Suicide!) but a little irritating on the originals like ʽHeaven's Wallʼ. Nevertheless, there are some good hooks, including orchestral ones — ʽHunter Of Invisible Gameʼ is a generic folk ballad in form, but well redeemed by the orchestral line that pierces the song throughout and essentially plays the same role that the Charlie McCoy guitar flourish plays on ʽDesolation Rowʼ. And some good lyrics, too: ʽThe Wallʼ is a genuinely moving tribute to Vietnam vets, not even so much because of the lyrical trumpet part, but because the words are so well put together: "Apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall". Then again... he wrote this circa 1998, back when the old imagery bag still had some good stuff tucked away at the bottom.
The strange alliance with Tom Morello actually works out well for the album: not only does the man add his flashy, indulgent, but oddly efficient guitar fireworks to several of the songs, but he was also the motivator behind Bruce's unpredictable choice of covers — not that ʽJust Like Fire Wouldʼ and ʽDream Baby Dreamʼ are such great songs per se, you understand, but the idea of Bruce Springsteen covering The Saints and Suicide, if only to acquaint the general public with these bands' existence, is endearing, and doubly endearing, perhaps, if we remember that this is being done in 2014, by which time no layman is supposed to remember anybody but Michael Jackson and Madonna from that decade. This is at the same time a «retro» move for the man, and a bold leap forward — let's have high hopes for a Captain Beefheart cover next time around.
Without much of anything else to say, I would just like to let this go with a thumbs up. By its very nature, High Hopes, comprised as it is of odds and ends, could not be a «great» Springsteen album. But at this time, I'd rather have a «simply good» Springsteen album that does not strive for much rather than a «would-be great failure» like Wrecking Ball, which struggles to ensnare you with its Grand Message, but falls flat compared to all those early Grand Messages. Some hooks, some decent lyrics, some diversity, a bit of weirdness... no, really, can't complain. Perhaps it was a good idea to let all those songs stew for a decade or more — sometimes it does not work (like with the weak version of ʽLand Of Hope And Dreamsʼ on Wrecking Ball), but here, these particular studio sessions caught the Boss in an invigorated mood, and even ʽAmerican Skinʼ sounds every bit as punchy as its live counterparts.