When the word ‘unreleased’ gets thrown around alongside ‘new album’, often critics and fans alike find themselves prejudging the album release. Frequently, it seems that albums featuring previously unreleased, unheard material and covers (reinterpretations) tend to be so-so or a perfect target for criticism compared to the artists best work. On High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen, aka “The Boss” has put himself into the arduous position of releasing unreleased material. Thankfully for The Boss, ever the consummate pro, High Hopes holds up much stronger than many albums of similar class. Springsteen doesn’t supersede his best work, classic or contemporary, but he still delivers a captivating effort nonetheless. Perhaps Springsteen’s prime has long been gone, but the dude’s still got it!
“High Hopes” opens the album with ‘tremendous’ hopes, even if the tonal center is firmly planted in a minor key. The Tim Scott McConnell (aka Ledfoot) cover is given an electrifying performance thanks to Springsteen’s enthusiastic and assertive pipes, Tom Morello’s slick guitar contributions, and a brilliant horn arrangement. Having gospel-tinged backing vocals doesn’t hurt The Boss’ cause either. “Harry’s Place” proceeds, penned solely by Springsteen. Springsteen definitely has some youthful swagger about him, even at 64: “You don’t f**k with Harry’s money you / Don’t f**k with Harry’s girls these are the rules, this is the world…” (Verse two). Oh no you didn’t Bruce! Tom Morello once more joins Springsteen for the fun, as do the Atlanta Strings. The late, great Clarence Clemons also appears, in all his ‘saxophonic’ glory.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” is one of the heaviest moments of High Hopes, finding Springsteen covering himself. The thoughtful, chilling cut first appeared on Springsteen’s live album, Live in New York City from 2001. Prior to its appearance on High Hopes in studio form, Springsteen has dedicated the song to Trayvon Martin. This dedication is appropriate, given the tough, disturbing tone of the lyrics: “Is it a gun, is it a knife, is it a wallet, this is your life / It ain’t no secret, it ain’t no secret, no secret my friend / you can get killed just for living in your American skin…” Meaningful, superbly produced, and memorable by all means, “American Skin (41 Shots)” is a personal favorite.
“Just Like Fire Would” may have a difficult act to follow, but it brings the heat sensationally itself. Another cover song it may be (courtesy of Australian rock band The Saints from 1987 effort All Fools Day), Springsteen delivers it superbly. If “American Skin” lacked enthusiasm given it’s dark tone, “Just Like Fire Would” is filled with jubilance, finding Springsteen confidently proclaiming “Just like fire would, I burn…” in his signature gruff tone. Once more, strings add a lovely touch. “Down In The Hole” follows, opening mysteriously and hauntingly. The sound contrasts previous numbers up until this point, probably credited in part to Brendan O’Brien’s production work. In addition to Clarence Clemon’s tenor, a dash of violin and organ drive a timbrel change.
“Heaven’s Wall” opens with a bang; with it’s infectious, ruckus percussive groove and inspired backing vocals singing “Raise your hand”, a recurrent key lyric throughout. Tom Morello continues to impress on lead guitar, adding even more punch to this upbeat cut. Lyrically, “Heaven’s Wall” doesn’t possess Springsteen’s best songwriting, but it still is infectious and feel-good. “Frankie Fell In Love” has more lyrical depth and contrast, relying less on repetition to drive it home. Love is clearly in the air, but Springsteen also expands the scope beyond Frankie’s romantic love, dropping references to word peace as well. “Frankie Fell In Love” has that folk-rock quality that The Boss does better than any other. “Frankie” frankly, stands out.
“This Is Your Sword” is inspiring if nothing more: “This is your sword, this is your shield / this is the power of love revealed / Carry it with you wherever you go / And give all the love that you have in your soul.” In addition to uplifting lyrics and timely musical punches to match the lyrics, it never hurts to have some accompanying Uilleann Pipes, right? “Hunter Of Invisible Game” slows the pace down, finding the Boss taking a more tender, thoughtful vocal approach. Maybe Bruce isn’t a true balladeer, but his attention to each word and each nuance here is something to behold. Again, the production and arrangement solidly supports the veteran, specifically the acoustic guitars and The Atlanta Strings. “Hunter Of Invisible Game” is nothing short of touching.
If Springsteen got away with fooling greener listeners with ‘oldie’ “American Skin (41 Shots)”, he couldn’t hope to do so on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”, the title track from Springsteen’s Grammy winning 1995 effort. “The Ghost OF Tom Joad” is nothing short of spirited in its 2014 version. Perhaps another Springsteen cover of himself is one too many, but it hurts very little when the quality is first rate. Of “The Wall” Springsteen writes in the liner notes: “…is something I’d played on stage a few times and remains very close to my heart…the song appeared after Patti and I made a visit to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington. I was inspired by my memories of Walter Cichon.” “The Wall” very much falls in the singer/songwriter category given its poetic lyrics. The album ends with Springsteen covering “Dream Baby Dream”, courtesy of band Suicide (it appeared on their second album). The unique timbre, created by strings, guitar, and synths truly makes this cut special.
Overall, High Hopes isn’t Springsteen’s best album, nor is it merely average. Vocally, Springsteen can still deliver a rousing performance, and the production throughout High Hopes is quite compelling. Perhaps the fact the album isn’t completely new is a bit of a bummer, but there is plenty of quality material to tide casual and hardcore Springsteen fans alike.
“High Hopes”; “American Skin (41 Shots)”; “Just Like Fire Would”; “Frankie Fell In Love”; “Hunter Of Invisible Game”
Bruce Springsteen • High Hopes • Columbia • US Release Date: January 14, 2014