Bruce Springsteen has had one hell of a career. 19 albums in 41 years and one of the longest unbroken recording contracts any artist has ever enjoyed. And still, at age 64, his relevance and importance continues to rise. So it can be forgiven if perhaps he hits a brick wall every now and then.
Now, before I continue, I will say that I do enjoy the new Bruce album, High Hopes. I really do. Well, mostly…
…because, honestly, this album is a mess. At times, a glorious mess, but it’s still a mess. You can look at it from two different perspectives, though. It’s no secret that this is a cobbled-together collection of outtakes, cover songs, and re-recorded versions of previously released songs. If you take it as that, it’s a pretty interesting cross-section of the lesser-known recesses of Bruce’s creativity. But if you ignore that and think of this as a legit Bruce album, then it can’t help but fall miserably flat.
One of the reasons this album is so scattershot is that the material comes from a variety of sources. Bruce’s best albums tend to be unified visions. They sound like they came from the same place. He sings with the same voice, the songs have a theme, the overall vibe feels right. Here, it’s all over the place and this can’t help but feel like a compilation.
It’s no surprise that the strongest tracks are the four songs that have been played on stage. “High Hopes” is a cover of a song by The Havelinas and was originally recorded and released by Bruce in 1995, on the Blood Brothers EP. It was revived last year, at the suggestion of guitarist Tom Morello, and was given new life with the full power of the E Street Band. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was originally written in 1999, following the shooting of Amadou Diallo, and has been a standard in the band’s set lists ever since. Topical once again after the death of Trayvon Martin, this song has a new sense of purpose and is one of the most majestic things Bruce has released in recent years. “Just Like Fire Would” is a cover of a song by Australian band The Saints and was performed by Bruce during his tour of Oz last year. A rousing slice of jangle pop with a Bruce-worthy chorus, this song fits in with his repertoire better than any cover ever has. Lastly, “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” was the title track of Bruce’s dark, mysterious 1995 solo album. Rage Against The Machine released a stormy cover of this song and when Tom Morello joined the E Street Band last year, it was to be expected that this song would be a centerpiece of the band’s sets and they did not disappoint. Bruce even gave Tom a verse, and the result is not only the best song on this album but perhaps the best thing to grace a Springsteen album in decades.
Between those high water marks are several tracks that sit somewhere in the so-so range. “Down In The Hole” is a dark number with a sort of understated groove, a decent enough song that wouldn’t have really fit on any recent album. “Heaven’s Wall” is the only one of the “new” songs that stands to be great on stage, with its anthemic chorus, propulsive groove, and wicked Morello guitar. “Frankie Fell In Love” is a goofy, acoustic-based number that sort of gives an update on a classic Springsteen character while “This Is Your Sword” is Bruce at his most Celtic Folk, a song that surely was a reject from Wrecking Ball, and is one song that has grown on me quite a lot. “Hunter Of Invisible Game” is folk-Bruce, in waltz-time, another violin-drenched number that sounds like another Wrecking Ball cast-off. While it’s not a bad song, it is rather boring and its title is trite. “The Wall” is a slow, emotional number, inspired by a trip to the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial as well as the story of Walter Cichon, a local musician who was killed in Vietnam. This is a beautiful song that should have closed this album, and would have done so perfectly had Bruce not totally botched the job.
So that leaves us with two more songs and, boy, are they clunkers. “Harry’s Place” was originally intended for The Rising but was wisely shelved. Everything about this song, from the music to the lyrics to the production, reminds me of Miami Vice. Had this song come out in 1987, it would have been featured that show and would have been a monster. But this is 2014. To say this song sucks would be an understatement. Still, it’s not the worst song on this disc.
No, friends, that distinction goes to the album-closing “Dream Baby Dream”, hands down the most plodding, insipid song that Bruce Springsteen has ever recorded in 41 years of making records. It was a terrible song when Suicide originally cut it in 1979 and it is even more lifeless here. And to think that this is the third time Bruce has recorded this song in the studio (two different versions were released online recently) makes me really wonder just what kind of hold this song has over him. Had the album simply closed out with “The Wall”, it would have ended on a pensive, reflective note and it would have been satisfying. This….this is just frustrating.
Now, I don’t want to come across as slammin’ the Boss. I love Bruce, I really do. And, honestly, he has done more to remain vital in his 60s than most of his contemporaries. But I think he should have tried a little bit harder. Or he should have saved this for another Tracks installment. Because what we have here, as far as I can tell, is a relatively flimsy excuse to keep touring. Bruce should know better.
I have “high hopes” for his next album.
Written by: Chris Anderson