Stream “High Hopes” in its entirety at cbs.com.
To Bruce Springsteen, the extensive trial-and-error he was known for in the ’70s and ’80s must feel more like a luxury at age 63 than it did at 27. “The light from the oncoming train focuses the mind,” he recently told Rolling Stone.
Hence “High Hopes,” an album on which Springsteen eschews his legendary thematic perfectionism and instead revisits outtakes and discarded tracks from the last decade-plus, many of them with Rage Against the Machine guitarist and E Street Band understudy Tom Morello. The result is an album that undeniably rocks, but lacks the through-line that makes some of Springsteen’s albums so powerful and accessible.
For this collection, you’ve got to meet Springsteen halfway: If you wanna play, you gotta pay. In the end, though, it’s worth the price, even if it takes a while to find that out.
The title track, a cover of a late-’80s Tim Scott McConnell track, is sort of an inauspicious start — it takes good advantage of the percussion- and horn-driven sound the ESB perfected on the “Wrecking Ball” tour, but doesn’t say anything Springsteen hasn’t already said better himself. And “Just Like Fire Would,” originally by Australian rockers The Saints, is similarly superfluous — it may stand up well as a Jukes-ready barroom rocker, but it feels like a B-side in search of a single.
As for Springsteen originals, the “Rising” outtake “Down In The Hole” is affecting, but its post-9/11 themes of loss and heartbreak, along with a familiar mournful organ line provided by the late Danny Federici, make it feel like it was extricated from that album and just grafted on here. As for “American Skin,” it’s just as striking as the live version, but ultimately feels vaguely unnecessary.
The standout from the album’s first half is definitely “Harry’s Place,” Springsteen’s most vivid character study in years, about a badass small-time crime boss and the lives he ruins. It’s gritty as all get out — it’s the first Springsteen lyric to drop the F-bomb in a “sexually derived” context, as the MPAA would say — and it’s relentlessly cynical, at least for Springsteen: “If he didn’t exist, it’d all go on just the same,” the jaded narrator declares, and it’s a moment of icy brilliance.
But when “High Hopes” hits the midway mark with “Heaven’s Wall” — a chugging Gospel shouter whose Biblical references lack the context of “Rocky Ground” or the romance of “I’ll Work For Your Love” — it’s feeling like the album might grind to a halt before it ever really gets going. Fortunately, on the second half Springsteen gets in a groove with a series of mostly stellar tracks that feel like part of a real album, not a collection of outtakes.
It starts with “Frankie Fell In Love,” a sly, playful bouncer that pits Einstein against Shakespeare in a head-heart battle in which Al’s doomed from the start. The lyrics are both fun and funny — “From here on in we’re eating takeout, she ain’t gonna be cooking for the likes of us,” says the lovestruck heroine’s brother — and the vibe’s infectious.
“This Is Your Sword,” a fatherly-advice song with a robust, Celtic-tinged arrangement reminiscent of much of “Wrecking Ball,” is the catchiest on the album. More importantly, Springsteen hits his theme of love’s redemptive powers with just the right mixture of sincerity and uplift, turning a potentially cheesy extended metaphor into an arena-friendly rallying cry.
Even better is “Hunter of Invisible Game,” another allegorical track that tackles an aging man’s struggle with mortality and existential dread. It’s not as dark as it sounds: Blessed with a lilting melody and supple vocal work by Springsteen, it faces the battle with an underlying celebration of mature love’s importance in a crazy world — “I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion” — and of a life well lived. It’s moving and ultimately beautiful.
The most striking song on the album, though, is “The Wall,” a wrenching monologue from a narrator still struggling with the loss of a friend in Vietnam. “This black stone and these hard tears, they’re all I got left now of you,” he says to his friend’s name inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial. Sung elegiacally, more resigned than angry, the singer’s sorrow and helplessness are blisteringly visceral.
Meanwhile, on the eight tracks where he’s featured, Morello’s guitar work provides a tough edge that sets the record apart from anything Springsteen’s done before. And for the most part, it works beautifully — it’s really the only raison d’etre for the studio version of “American Skin,” and adds a funky, wah-wah underworld vibe to “Harry’s Place,” counterpointing perfectly with the Clarence Clemons sax track laid down years ago.
The only time Morello takes it over the top is on the reworked “Ghost of Tom Joad” duet, where the space alien machine gun sound effects he trotted out for the live version are recreated note for note, an odd choice for a studio track. Still, the raw power of his delivery suits the indignation behind the lyrics, still some of Springsteen’s best.
The album ends with Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” which Springsteen took to covering during the “Devils & Dust” tour in 2005. It fares better than “American Skin,” even if it doesn’t deviate much from the previously released live version — Springsteen’s hypnotic take is somehow even more mesmerizing in producer Ron Aniello’s echoey studio soundscape.
In fact, by the time that track draws to its haunting conclusion, you’ll likely find that despite the rocky start, the album’s familiar themes of hope, redemption and love’s ability to trump adversity have worked their magic the way they do on any good Springsteen release. The power and pleasures of “High Hopes” may not hit you like a wrecking ball — but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.