Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, is a collection of revamped and re-recorded lost songs – but it doesn't quite fit together
28 December 2013
As one of rock’s great storytellers, Bruce Springsteen usually makes albums with a strong narrative thrust binding the songs together. So what are we supposed to make of a new CD that opens with a rocky cover of a folk song about finding hope in a hopeless world, ends with an atmospheric take on the romantic Dream Baby Dream (originally by synth band Suicide) and, in between, roams across topics including institutional racism, Vietnam, 9/11 and the everlasting triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Although substantially re-recorded and presented as a new collection, these 12 tracks are odds and ends, “leftovers” from other sessions and new versions of songs that have taken different forms on the road. Springsteen has always written a lot of material which he shapes and filters, with some songs – ones that many fans consider classics – discarded from his sets as he goes. Previously, these sorts of rejects have surfaced on compilations, notably the excellent Tracks box set from 1998.
This time, he has revamped and re-recorded lost songs to bring them up to date. You can hear the old, meaty saxophone of Clarence Clemons (who died in 2011) and the rangy piano playing of Danny Federici (who died in 2008), but they’re combined with the new, slashing art-attack guitar of Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, who was brought in to expand the E Street Band line up in 2012.
Morello is the album’s guiding spirit. But while his agit-pop sensibility is a good fit with Springsteen’s socio-political conscience, his effects-laden guitar playing operates at odd angles to the deep roots sensibility of the E Street sound. He slashes and burns through American Skin (41 Shots), a raging, angry anthem inspired by the 1999 police shooting of immigrant Amadou Diallo, giving Springsteen the contemporary edge he has been looking for.
But Morello tips a revamped Ghost Of Tom Joad completely over the top, taking the quiet dignity of the acoustic 1995 original and turning it into a zany prog rock wig-out. The pieces of the song don’t quite fit together, and the same might be said of the whole album.
Particularly ill-fitting are songs of unambiguous Christian faith, presumably plucked from a gospel album Springsteen scrapped before 2012’s triumphant Wrecking Ball. There is a stiff didacticism in their Biblical language that sits poorly with Springsteen’s questioning humanism elsewhere.
Releasing this album at 64, Springsteen seems busier than ever. In a recent Rolling Stone interview he said, “It’s that old story, the light from the oncoming train focuses the mind”. Unfortunately, it hasn’t focused this record. Perhaps the real story of High Hopes is that Springsteen is only trying to keep busy. There’s a lot of great stuff on here, but it doesn’t hold together and doesn’t come close to being one of Springsteen’s great albums.