Bruce Springsteen has always been an artist of many voices, from a whisper to a twang to a gospel shout. He’s the guy who, even while crafting the intense focus of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” was also banging goofily away on the piano with Miami Steve laughing alongside, writing three-minute records like “Sherry Darling.” His concerts have always showcased the wide range of his work; even when – as on the “Rising” tour – he’s been focused on conveying a serious message, he’s also found room for crowd-pleasing rockers like “Two Hearts” or “Ramrod.”
But you can do that when you’ve got a three-hour set to play with. Within the confines of a studio album, it seems harder for him to walk the line between wanting to construct a careful, serious narrative and wanting to cover all the musical and emotional bases that he’s capable of covering. “The River” aimed for the latter, and besides needing the space of a double album, it succeeded largely because the album’s production (thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Van Zandt) served to focus and unify it.
In his SXSW keynote a couple of years ago, Springsteen said of music: “Treat it like it’s all that we have, and then remember: it’s only rock and roll.” “High Hopes” veers between these two attitudes, meshing them most successfully in the ferocious but highly danceable title track. “Harry’s Place,” which has left some fans scratching their heads, seems to me more of an “only rock and roll” song. It lets Springsteen jump into a character’s life and voice, giving him the opportunity to growl menacingly while the listener knows it’s really play-acting. It reminds me of “A Night with the Jersey Devil” in the way he seems to be enjoying the role. It’s more “Lilyhammer” than “Sopranos.” And it’s fun.
But after that the album rockets the listener directly into “American Skin (41 Shots),” which is nothing if not deadly serious. Sequencing-induced vertigo, or painting with broad strokes the contrast between “serious as death” and “only rock and roll”? Listeners may disagree here.
In fact, “High Hopes” is almost a connect-the-dots of all the different voices and emotions you’d find at a Springsteen show. BOOM! Off your ass and dancing to “Just Like Fire Would.” BOOM! Goosebumps and Kleenex for the devastating, disquieting “Down in the Hole.” BOOM! “Heaven’s Wall,” just begging to bust loose from the grooves of the recording and turn into a big stadium-ready anthem. BOOM! Bruce and Steve mugging at the microphone telling the playful tale of “Frankie Fell In Love.” And so on.
The last three songs on the album, though, create an arc that works really well. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is not that different from the live version that Tom Morello’s been performing with E Street for a few years now, and to diehard fans it’s nothing new, but pretend you haven’t heard it before – or maybe only once or twice – and listen to how freaking “blisters on my fingers” hard it rocks.
And then into the immense silence that fills a space after something that ferocious, “The Wall” brings its quiet, deceptively simple elegy. Springsteen’s written about grief many times, but this is grief weathered by time and informed by the larger world. Just as the Vietnam Memorial Wall honors those it memorializes by the simple fact of preserving their names, this song makes its statement by simply naming the small details of one life lived and lost. The trumpet solo (Curt Ramm?) is perfect here, dignified and mournful – I can imagine a different production decision that would have placed a harmonica solo here instead, but I think the trumpet’s purity speaks volumes.
(Incidentally, Springsteen now seems to place an “elegy slot” on many of his albums, as the last or next-to-last song: “Terry’s Song,” “The Last Carnival,” “We Are Alive,” and now “The Wall.” In fact, you could make a case that his sequencing strategy from “Magic” onwards includes “Open with a rocker, close with elegy and healing.” Hmm.)
Anyway, in the most successful song-to-song transition, “The Wall” is followed by “Dream Baby Dream” – a deep sigh and a bit of healing comfort after sorrow. The album’s overall trajectory is a bit rocky, but its conclusion is immensely satisfying.
Is it a perfect album? Nah. Am I tired of it yet, after listening to it probably a couple dozen times? Also nah. I’m still hearing new things in it, and think I will be for quite a while. Is the album worth your hard-earned money? You may end up skipping a track or two after the first couple times through (and interestingly, of the fans I’ve heard from, there’s a wide range of disagreement over which tracks are the best and which are skip-able) but I think pretty much any Springsteen fan will find something to like here. Am I looking forward to hearing these songs live, with the full glorious power of the E Street Band propelling them to new heights? Yes, yes, yes. Please. Yes.
Read Pete’s review of High Hopes.