Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes”

©Danny Clinch, ShoreFire Media
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch/ShoreFire Media

Bruce Springsteen has always used the concert stage to rediscover and restructure songs from his studio albums. On his latest studio release, High Hopes, he brings the process full-circle. Songs that were given new prominence and fuller instrumentation on recent tours — the Havalinas’ cover “High Hopes” (from the 1995 E Street Band EP Blood Brothers), and the title track from his solo acoustic album The Ghost of Tom Joad (also 1995) — come back to the studio in their reworked forms. “American Skin (41 Shots),” which only appears on the E Street Band’s reunion tour album Live in New York City (2001), gets an official studio version on High Hopes as well. In a Sirius XM radio interview, Springsteen explained his decision to remake “American Skin” and the electrically reborn concert version of “Tom Joad” in studio, saying that, by never having appeared on a studio record, those songs had not been “formally defined. … If they’re not formally defined, they lose a little of their authority: ‘Oh, it only came out on the live record’…”

I disagree with Bruce on that point — the angry, bottomlessly sad “American Skin” had plenty of authority on Live in New York City, sung a year after the controversial NYPD shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. And I’m not sure that anyone in this digital, non-album-centric age (except, maybe, for us boomer codgers) thinks in terms of “a studio album is more authoritative than a live album” anymore. But if by “authority” Bruce is implying that the studio version of a track is always the “definitive” one, I beg to differ here as well. I’ve always felt that “Prove It All Night,” from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, didn’t really live and breathe until Springsteen got it out onto the road; for me, the long, sinewy, sensual 1978 live version is the definitive one. I’m also partial to the sharp, majestic original live version of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” featuring the core E Street Band of the 1999-00 Reunion Tour, over the dense, horns-and-choir studio version from Wrecking Ball (2012).

Anyway, High Hopes is a mixed bag of remakes, outtakes from Springsteen’s 2002-12 studio releases and  cover songs that Springsteen has performed on various tours over the years.  The record isn’t nearly as expansive and thought-out as the rarity-filled Tracks and The Promise box sets, so you can’t really call it an archival piece. And if you look at it as simply a studio release, it doesn’t add up to a cohesive statement, either personal or political, on the order of  Springsteen’s last studio album, the fierce, impassioned  Wrecking Ball.

In interviews, Springsteen has said that the idea for the High Hopes collection came to him as he was working on other album projects, none of which were finished. And it was time to hit the road again (Springsteen tours pretty much incessantly these days). In his long career, Springsteen has never gone on tour without a new album;  even the reunion tour supported Tracks, with its deep treasure trove of previously unreleased material. All of which hints at why High Hopes seems so scattershot. It’s more of a place-holder to take on the road than a unified statement, and I note, uncomfortably, that the last time he toured with a place-holder album, it was 2009’s pretty, poppish, but overly-orchestrated and unfocused Working on a Dream. I saw the San Jose show at the beginning of that tour, when he played nearly everything on the record, but the show felt oddly purposeless, in contrast to the anti-Bush fueled anger of the Magic tour two years before. By the Mansfield, Mass. show I caught at tour’s end, everything had been ditched from WOAD except for the title track and the cornball “Outlaw Pete,” and the tour had become a sort of victory lap and audience-request jam.

Fortunately, the songs on High Hopes feel more concert-friendly than those on WOAD. But at times, the new album, like WOAD, is a wall of sound, and not in a good way. Springsteen co-produced the new release with Ron Aniello (Wrecking Ball) on some songs and Brendan O’Brien (The Rising, WOAD) on others. There are piles of unnecessary studio effects used to make older basic tracks sound more current, plus string sections, extra percussionists and an overused Tom Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist who has become the tour understudy for Steve Van Zandt whenever Van Zandt is in Iceland filming his Netflix show Lilyhammer. 

Look, I like Tom Morello, but not every song is improved by — or, in the case of the feverish gospel track “Heaven’s Wall,” compatible with — his signature scratch effects. He gets a long, showy solo on “High Hopes” and then is allowed to just keep on shredding away, when he should be ceding the spotlight to Bruce’s vocals. If guitarists could be whistled for embellishing, like hockey players, Morello would spend a lot of High Hopes in the penalty box. Remember Morello’s beautifully restrained, stately coda on “Jack of All Trades” from Wrecking Ball?  His sparse brushstrokes on “This Depression”?  Less is more.

Having said that …

On High Hopes’ electric — and electrifying — transformation of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello’s scratch and wah-wah solo near the end is some of the finest guitar work ever recorded, period. Morello’s contribution to the evolution of this song can’t be overstated. Rage Against the Machine’s metallic punk cover formed the template for Springsteen’s electric concert version. And when Morello sits in with the E Street Band for the live performance captured on the Magic Tour Highlights EP from 2008, and faithfully reproduced in studio on High Hopes, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” does become a new song. On the original acoustic version from The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen’s nearly whispered vocals conjure a lonely crusade for justice for the homeless in the land of plenty. It’s too hushed to work as a rallying cry. But on the new version, Springsteen and Morello trade lead vocals and harmonize on the choruses and Morello’s fiery baritone sounds like he’s ready to storm a barricade every time he opens his mouth. He helps Springsteen uncork the rage that always lay at the heart of this protest song.

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” is the emotional high point of High Hopes, but there are some other gems from the Ali Baba-like cave that is Springsteen’s vault of unreleased wonders and weirdness.  “Harry’s Place,” an outtake from The Rising featuring the late Clarence Clemons on tenor sax, is a surprising tone poem, marrying gritty Scorsese-ian lowlife lyrics, sung by Bruce with a Beat Poet’s attention to emphasis and flow, with the jazzy dissonance of  late ’70s Joni Mitchell. (Or maybe I’m just imagining that the title “Harry’s Place” is a nod to “Harry’s House,” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns.)

It’s also nice to finally have a recording of the ultra-rare, elegiac “The Wall,” sung in the voice of a Vietnam vet (the late Danny Federici is on organ). And “American Skin (41 Shots”) finds renewed power and purpose here as a response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. This is one of Springsteen’s greatest political songs, and it deserves as wide an audience as this album can give it. However, the scratchy, muffled radio speaker effect used on Springsteen’s voice for the repetition of  the phrase “41 shots” at the beginning of the song is a frustrating misstep. I think I see the reasoning: it suggests a police officer calling in an incident, attempts to place the police more tangibly as characters within the song. But the effect sounds cold and distancing. It robs the song of the wrenching display of shared communal grief achieved on the Live in New York City version, where the individual band members took turns singing the “41 shots” refrain as if they were respectfully placing handfuls of dirt on a coffin.

High Hopes isn’t all downbeat. The bounding, propulsive cover of  “Just Like Fire Would,” originally done by the Australian ’80s alt-rock band the Saints, is pure rock and roll joy;  the crisp, unfussed production lets you hear how nimbly and hard the current E Street Band-plus-horn-section can rock. I’m also playing the heck out of the Celtic-tinged, Byrds-y melodic “This Is Your Sword,” with spirit-lifting backing vocals from Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell and Van Zandt. 

The album ends with a plush, hypnotic cover of “Dream Baby Dream,”  a song by ’70s New York punk/electronica duo Suicide. Springsteen, ever the musical omnivore, first pulled this quirky choice out of thin air on his 2005 solo tour. Seated behind a wheezing harmonium, Springsteen sang this simple love song as a lullaby at show’s end. But the fully orchestrated High Hopes incarnation reveals itself as a gorgeous prayer and a plea, directly from Springsteen to his fans. “Come on, we gotta keep the light burning, come on we gotta keep the light burning”… “I just wanna see you smile, I just wanna see you smile” he repeats. “Dream Baby Dream” fairly glows with purpose, and suddenly, the Boss’s intentions with this release snap into focus, a little too late to fully give High Hopes heft, but enough to incline you to think more kindly of the record than its flaws deserve.

“Dream Baby Dream” is Bruce bargaining with his band, himself, and his fans:  I can do this again, we can do this again, another show, another tour, forever and ever, amen. It’s such a revelatory moment that it takes your breath away. Springsteen needs to tour, he lives to tour, to make live music, to communicate with fans face-to-face, to defy time and age, night after night after night after night. If he feels he needs to put out an album in order for all of this to happen, then I’ll happily take as many High Hopes as he has in him.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014