When it was announced that Bruce Springsteen’s new album, High Hopes, was a collection of newly finished outtakes, covers, and studio versions of songs he’s been playing live, I was a bit confused. Even with his prolific output of late, it didn’t seem necessary to release something only two years after Wrecking Ball. Stranger, it seemed like a stopgap – the type of album Matt Springer and I concocted for our “Spare Parts” series a few years ago, hardly the work of someone who famously agonizes over every last detail of song selection and sequence.
I was, however, intrigued by the news that much of it was recorded while the E Street Band was on tour in Australia. My hope was that he knew how good they were sounding after a year on the road, and wanted to unleash them live in the studio, which hasn’t really been the case since the Born in the U.S.A. sessions. But Bruce’s interview with Rolling Stone gave no indication that was his rationale.
This was unfortunate because my only problem with Springsteen’s albums, especially of late, is his tendency to overthink the production. There’s a scene in the documentary that accompanied the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set where Jon Landau, in the studio in 1978, lectures him about the importance of the rock album in modern society. I think Bruce still hears that in his head when he goes to mix, and it often obscures the quality of his songs on the albums.
You can hear the difference by comparing the High Hopes take on “American Skin (41 Shots)” with the version released on 2001’s Live in New York City. The original was masterful, with the band’s harmonies mirroring our collective anger and confusion at Amadou Diallo’s killing. Now, that’s all washed away by the drum loops and Springsteen’s distorted background vocals. It’s only when Tom Morello’s guitar takes over midway through the song that its power returns.
In a few places it works. On “Harry’s Place,’ a Rising-era outtake that could’ve been an alternate theme song for The Sopranos, the bass-heavy murkiness adds to the mystique of the title character, a local underground kingpin. And the added instrumentation gives “Dream Baby Dream” the same dramatic build when he used it to close his 2005 solo shows.
The best moments are when the sound opens up and you get the sense that the tracks were cut live, more or less. “Just Like Fire Would” (a cover of the Saints), “Frankie Fell in Love” and the title track all have a rollicking folk-rock-soul that harkens back to vintage E Street Band, where you can close your eyes and picture Little Steven draping his arm over Springsteen as they share a mic.
But the pretty melodies of “Down in the Hole,” and “Hunter of Invisible Game” — the former of which sees the return of the “I’m On Fire” synthesizer sound — are overshadowed by the constant need to add something more to the tracks rather than let them breathe and allow the listener to create their own meaning. And although neither “Heaven’s Wall” or “This Is Your Sword” are among the stronger cuts, something tells me that, like much of the Wrecking Ball material, they will come to life in concert.
Morello’s appearance on eight songs is getting a lot of the attention, and probably rightfully so. The three cuts where he’s allowed to let loose, “Skin” “High Hopes,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” on which he and Springsteen trade lead vocals, benefit greatly from his insurgent guitar. I was never a Rage Against the Machine fan, but his playing works very well in the context of the E Street Band.
No, High Hopes is not the standard thematic album that we usually expect from Springsteen. But then, neither was The River, and, more recently, Magic contained a few diversions that detracted from the “Bruce’s response to the Bush era” narrative that swept through it. Nor does it contain the embarrassment of the worst moments of Working on a Dream. But it’s mostly a strong collection of songs that, despite the production issues, still offer something on repeated listenings. Now can we please have the U.S. tour dates?