Bruce Springsteen finds new life in older songs on 'High Hopes'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Background information can be vital to the listening experience. Recording notes, dates, personnel and the artist’s background can provide essential context to music, and often does. But the trump card in all this is the music; an album needs to be able to stand on its own absent any liner notes in order to really work.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise when Bruce Springsteen, in assembling a record of curiosities with songs recorded over the past decade, is able to pull everything together into one coherent statement. High Hopes, an album of covers, unreleased tracks and new recordings, has been billed as a kind of rarities album for Springsteen, but it plays like a true record in its own right, executed with the same exacting precision the man has brought to his music since the beginning.
Springsteen took his recent touring with guitarist Tom Morello as inspiration for the new album, which transformed from being an Odds and Sods-type of record into a hybrid that merged some recent leftover tracks with new recordings of covers and older songs with Morello, who filled in with the E Street Band while Steven Van Zandt was away filming his Netflix show Lillyhammer.
Armed with that information, hardcore fans would be understandable in being mildly disappointed if they were expecting a mini treasure trove of lost Springsteen tracks. But without that, what’s left is a strong record that cuts sharp and has more spontaneity than much of Springsteen’s recent work.
It all starts suspiciously, though. The title track doesn’t sound much different from the version that appeared on the Blood Brothers EP in 1996, save for the grittier tone to Springsteen’s voice these days. Morello is featured on that track, but his first noticeable contribution comes on the second track, “Harry’s Place,” which is driven by his guitar punctuated by his machine-gun riffing towards the end.
Morello’s real spotlight comes on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which is a dramatic reworking of Springsteen’s solo 1995 take. This had become a highlight of the E Street Band’s shows with Morello, and even the tone of his guitar sums up the anti-authoritarian theme of the song. The slashing riffs and screams capture the harsh spirit of Springsteen’s Steinbeck-inspired narrator and is truly thrilling.
There are some loose ends covered as well. “American Skin (41 Shots),” Springsteen’s response to the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, has been floating around since 2000 and a live version was released on 2001's Live in New York City album, and here it's finally given a prominent spot on a studio album. “Dream Baby Dream” is a cover of Suicide that Springsteen has been breaking out in concert since 2005 and was revived with Morello’s entrance into the E Street Band, and it’s given a warm rendition here. "The Wall" is a meditative ballad that features one of the late Danny Frederici's final performances, and it's simply one of the more beautiful songs that Springsteen has released in the past 15 years.
As was the case with 2012’s Wrecking Ball, this album again allows Springsteen to go beyond the boundaries of the E Street Band. Rather than the harsh ending he gave the E Street Band in the early nineties, this is a more comfortable way for Springsteen to stretch himself beyond the confines of the group without completely divorcing himself. He’s reached a point where can comfortably record the songs as he sees fit without worrying about the public perception that he’s breaking up the band, calling in band members and guests as needed. With all of the changes in the band recently, it’s another sign that the Springsteen flag will continue to wave well into the future.
As for High Hopes, while working as a catch-all for some of the stray tracks and lonely songs from his last decade or so, this album might be more readily embraced by the casual Springsteen fan than the hardcore. Without stressing about what was included, left off or re-recorded, what’s left is a solid collection of songs that sound as though they belong together and, importantly, sound good on their own.
And the result is what’s important here. This is an album that doesn’t sound like a hodge-podge collection of throwaways. It sounds like the next Bruce Springsteen album, one that works very much as a follow-up to Wrecking Ball while retaining its own character; less defiant, perhaps more troubled, and always in keeping with his belief that an album should carry its own unifying theme. That the songs came from scattered beginnings doesn’t matter as much as where they’ve all arrived.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org