“I don’t really work completely linearly, like a lot of people do,” says Bruce Springsteen in the latest edition of Rolling Stone, speaking in reference to his new album, “High Hopes,” out today.
Springsteen was responding here to the suggestion that this new collection was somehow an anomaly in his storied catalog, as it is the first time he’s culled an album largely from older, pre-existing material. In truth, as any songwriter who has been assembling a book of songs for 40 years would likely attest, you don’t abandon older songs every time you head into the studio to track a new recording. Temporal concerns mean far less as, to borrow another Springsteen quote from the same interview, “the light from the oncoming train” begins to “focus the mind.”
So much of the advance buzz surrounding “High Hopes” seems ill-conceived – it’s far less an anomaly than simply yet another case of Springsteen digging into his book for material that makes sense together, tells a story pertinent to himself, is deemed potentially meaningful and relevant to his audience, and is capable of presenting an integrated narrative.
Based on that criteria alone, “High Hopes” is another stellar Springsteen record in a catalog that demands to be considered one of the most consistently compelling in post-’60s American rock.
But there’s more to this album than consistency. At its heart, “High Hopes” is a stirring encapsulation of the late career renaissance that commenced when Springsteen reconvened his E Street Band in 1999, following a decade spent largely on hit-and-miss work. For the most part, Springsteen has gone from strength to strength during the time since, releasing a number of albums – including the post 9/11 masterpiece “The Rising,” and the Bush-era account-taking “Magic” – that should be considered among the strongest of his career.
What actually is anomalous about “High Hopes” is the fact that it includes three cover songs, even going so far as to begin and end with songs not written by Springsteen, and taking its album tile from one of them. No matter – all three of these covers sound like songs Springsteen could’ve written himself, both harmonically and in terms of their poetic-populist lyrics.
The first of them, the album’s title track, kicks off proceedings and lays the template for the rest of the record, which might be described as a message in a bottle aimed at listeners abandoned on the shore of a lonely island with a harsh climate and an often fierce human population. Commencing with a strident shuffle groove propelled forward by a percussive acoustic guitar, the song moves through a dense arrangement incorporating Mariachi-tinged horns, gospel-informed harmony vocals, and a wildly inventive guitar solo delivered via the album’s other anomaly – guitarist Tom Morello, late of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, who is described by Springsteen in the liner notes as “my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level.” Morello has been widely hailed as a groundbreaking guitarist, whose work with Rage Against the Machine incorporated the influence of the turntable scratching introduced by hip-hop into the rock guitar vernacular.
Morello is all over this album, his already iconic sound and style granted significant space in the mix on eight of the album’s 12 songs. Even more significantly, Morello is granted a vocal verse during an epic rendering of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” one of three songs on “High Hopes” that Springsteen has been playing live for several years.
Why rework in the studio songs that true fans already know so well from Springsteen tours? “I felt they were among the best of my writing and deserved a proper studio recording,” Springsteen writes in the album’s liner notes. A seemingly straightforward statement, this, but a close read hints at something deeper: Springsteen, in common parlance, is viewed primarily as an artist who is at his best on the concert stage, not in the recording studio. While the sheer power, raw passion and always apparent dedication of a Springsteen show backs up such a notion, this reading is essentially unfair – a huge part of Springsteen’s significance can be posited to the way he arranges his songs in the recording studio, building audio movies out of the raw materials of individual performances.
So “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is transformed here from its initial guise as a dark and sublet acoustic ballad into a rousing, grandiose anthem for the forgotten class, replete with plenty of electric guitar fire and the full-on fury of the mighty E Street Band. It’s a beautiful recording, stunningly assembled and lovingly painted, though at its heart it is clearly a live-in-the-studio performance.
Similarly, “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song Springsteen wrote and began performing immediately following the 1999 killing of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo by plainclothes New York City police officers – who fired 41 shots into Diallo after reportedly confusing the wallet he’d removed from his pocket as some sort of firearm – benefits from its in-the-studio rendering. A show-stopper in concert, the song gets a more refined reading here, due to the addition of a sparse drum loop, distorted vocals in the introduction, and more spot-on pyrotechnics from Morello. The song has lost none of its relevance, perhaps even gaining some, following the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. (“We’re baptized in these waters, and in each other’s blood,” Springsteen sings, and the effect is a chilling one.)
“Just Like Fire Would,” a cover of a fairly obscure tune by Australian punk rock band the Saints, rather ironically is the most E Street-like song on “High Hopes,” propelled as it is by a relentless New Jersey bar band groove. The last of the covers is a take on New York City synth-punk duo Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” which Springsteen employed as the set-closer every night of his 2005 “Devils & Dust” solo tour, to hair-raising effect. Here, the song gets the full Roy Orbison treatment, becoming in the process a haunting love letter to Springsteen’s audience, and a paean to the indomitability of the human spirit itself. Stunning, in a word.
Other songs had their genesis during the recording of the albums “The Rising,” “Magic” and “Working On A Dream,” the three collections for which Springsteen enlisted the talents of Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien. “Heaven’s Wall” is the most profound of the bunch. It’s a rousing marriage of gospel vocals, and Springsteen’s immaculate songcraft placing it alongside such recent gems as “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “The Rising.” Another standout is the hypnagogic, twilit “Hunter of Invisible Game,” a waltz-time piece pushed heavenward by a breathtaking string arrangement.
Rather than coming across as a grab-bag of also-ran material, or a patched-together contract fulfiller, “High Hopes” bears the markings of a Springsteen classic. That the man is still making records that deserve such a description at the age of 64 is something to be cherished.
By this point in his career, Springsteen has himself become the ghost of Tom Joad, the character from John Steinbeck’s timeless “The Grapes of Wrath” who bears witness to the sufferings imposed upon the middle and working classes by a heartless ruling class. This fact sticks in the craw of those who would disparage Springsteen as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt,” a bleeding heart given to liberal grandstanding, but that’s just plain their problem. The rest of us can exult in the fact that no one in the world of popular song is better suited to the job.
3½ stars (Out of four)