Bruce Springsteen

High Hopes

Written by: TL on 15/01/2014 22:05:59

Approaching eight years as an amateur music writer of decreasing awfulness, it would be false modesty if I didn't admit that I'm starting to consider myself relatively seasoned at what I do. Yet at the same time, it would be hollow bravado if I didn't confess to shaking in my Macbeths somewhat, when faced with the task of reviewing my first Bruce Springsteen record: He of 64 years and eighteen studio albums, who holds twenty American grammies and three-point-nine million facebook likes. He who I had considered a relic for old timers up until two years ago, when his "condensed", three hour, Roskilde Festival-headlining set pulled the carpet from under me and made me start to grasp exactly why people in the know call this man The Boss.

Perhaps I can count myself lucky then, in that "High Hopes" isn't your typical, carefully sequenced and conceptualized Springsteen album. They're doing what they can not to call it a B-sides album - understandably, since it would sound inaccurate considering the amount of work that's clearly gone into these songs - but still, the twelve tracks on here are mostly re-imaginings or re-recordings of select rarities or b-sides from the Boss' past, almost all of which now feature noteworthy contributions from Tom Morello, who stood in as guitarist for The E Street Band for a considerable stretch in 2013, while their regular guitarist Steven Van Zandt was occupied filming the TV series "Lilyhammer".

The most striking inclusions will perhaps be "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Ghost Of Tom Joad", both of which even casual Springsteen listeners have a chance of recognising from "The Essential Bruce Springsteen" compilation. The latter, "Grapes Of Wrath"-referencing ballad, originally featured on its eponymous 1995 album as a primarily acoustic folk track, but on here it's gotten a full, western-rock, big-band treatment. While the power under the song is significantly boosted however, I feel that especially people who've read "Grapes Of Wrath" will be prone to questioning if the acoustic atmosphere didn't fit the narrative better. Similarly, while "American Skin" makes its way through its first half, I initially questioned if there was any point in doing a studio recording of a song that was so good that it became a classic on the back of a "mere" live recording in the first place. Here however, it sounds so ridiculously good when Morello comes in and trades notes with saxophonist Jake Clemmons, that you not only lay all concerns about his fit with the E Street Band to rest, you also sort of flip the argument, starting to think that this song is so good that it doesn't really matter which of the versions you listen to.

Apart from "American Skin", other highlights include the back-chilling strings in the bridge of the mellow "Down In The Hole", and the miniscule guitar effect Morello somehow manages to blend seamlessly into the song's otherwise organic atmosphere. That and of course the opening one-two of "High Hopes" and "Harry's Place", both of which have horn-backed swagger by the boat load. Again, Morello's mechanical contributions to the former is subtle to the point where it's almost not there, yet it's clearly noticeable and fitting as an extra spice on an already effective song. The concoction sounds straight up dangerous, as does the atmosphere in "Harry's Place", where Bruce credibly delivers lyrics including "fucks" and "hipsters" without betraying the cinematic song's decadent underworld soundscape.

The early half of the album thus holds up quite well, making you wonder how on earth these songs couldn't find room on prior Springsteen albums. After the dramatic groove of "Heaven's Wall" however, starting with the relatively straight and forgetable "Frankie Fell In Love", things do start to feel comparatively more hit and miss. The bagpibes and overall Irish folksiness of "This Is Your Sword" fits in oddly at this point, and the hopeful strings in "Hunter Of Invisible Game" can't quite lift the song from sounding a bit too sated and content in tone.

When "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" eventually appears as a highlight sandwiched here between the last two and the increasingly tempered "The Wall" and "Dream Baby Dream", it does admittedly feel a little less obvious why Springsteen felt a need to get these on an album, compared to how convincing the earlier cuts were. That said however, it really can't be exaggerated that critizing the later songs only really works in the context of Springsteen's colossal career, and ultimately it makes all kinds of sense that "High Hopes" isn't being labelled a b-sides record, because really, the produce here is so much more elegant, confident, diverse and relevant, than many bands manage on their career breaking records these days. The songs are forthcoming enough to make sense with you on first listen, yet rich enough to lure you back for more. That's the reason the man is still very much the Boss, and it's why nobody should hold high hopes of inheriting his position any time soon.

8

Download: American Skin (41 Shots), Down In The Hole, High Hopes, Harry's Place
For The Fans Of: Music. Good Things. Breathing.
Listen: facebook.com/brucespringsteen

Release Date 14.01.2014
Columbia

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