Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album, High Hopes, dropped on January 14 and reviews have come thick and fast since its release date. But reviews haven’t been very flattering, with most critics pointing to problems with how the songs cohere to form the album. To make that point one has to assume cohesion is the point of any album, especially in this digital age, but, admittedly, it is something to which Springsteen has previously paid much attention. A look at review-aggregating website Metacritic shows the album is getting a C rating – not his worst, but not a highlight either. The general criticism could be summed up as “it’s an odds and sods collection of songs written and recorded at different times, under the watch of different producers in different studios, with different musicians but it has its own charm”. “It’s not a studio album proper,” cry the critics, with some hinting that the Boss is selling his fans short by punting this as a studio album. So let’s examine the facts.
It’s not like High Hopes is without precedent. Springsteen has numerous times in his career recorded over 20 to 30 songs for an album, until a breakthrough song is birthed, which results in the scrapping of the previous work for a new album of songs that are written and recorded in a week or two. For proof just look at the 2010 release The Promise, with its 22 songs that never made it onto Darkness On The Edge Of Town in 1978. So naturally the stockpile of great songs never released by the Boss, has to reach a critical point after a while and the vaults need to be raided and great songs saved from obscurity.
Springsteen’s 2005 album, Devils & Dust, was basically a collection of old songs rerecorded. According to Peter Ames Carlin’s recently published biography, Bruce, Springsteen called producer Brendan O’Brien in November 2004, reeling from George W Bush’s election win to secure a second term. “The songs didn’t represent a new burst of creativity as much as a thoughtful sifting of Bruce’s old notebooks and recorded archive,” writes Carlin. “The title track, a whispered monologue by a solider clutching a gun in some unnamed but sandy battle zone, dated back to 2003,” writes Carlin. “And that was newest song on the album.” Carlin dates All the Way Home to 1991 and a number of others to the Ghost of Tom Joad sessions in 1995.
So what’s the difference? No one was jumping up and down calling Devils & Dust an odds and sods album – it was universally praised. Metacritic gave the album a score of 81/100, while fan reviews on the website gave it 86/100. Rolling Stone declared it “as immediate and troubling as this morning’s paper”. The Village Voice was the lone dissenting voice, calling the album “long and boring and preachy”. Devil’s & Dust felt like a response to Bush’s conservative presidency. But in form it saw a return to the character-driven, personal-political, narrative songwriting that Springsteen does so well, rather than the grandstanding, nation-rallying, post-9/11 war cry that The Rising became. Similarly, High Hopes comes after the nation-rallying bravado of 2012’s Wrecking Ball, which vented its anger at the bankers and capitalists behind the economic downturn and banking crisis of 2008. Although Wrecking Ball received universal acclaim, its songs were too preachy and angry for this critic.
But let’s get back to High Hopes. There are 12 songs. Three are covers, one dates back to 1998, two date back to 2002’s The Rising, and another two were initially recorded sometime between 2002 and 2008. Two are rerecordings of songs written in 1995 and 1999 and two are new recordings, but their year of origin is not clear. With such a chequered past, the album naturally lacks cohesion. But there are only three of four songs that seem out of place, which makes the album seem pretty damn cohesive for a reported “odds and sods” collection.
At the heart of the album is Tom Morello’s guitar. The former Rage Against the Machine guitarist is all over the album, adding guitar parts to eight of the 12 tracks and even adding joint vocals to a new full-band rendition of The Ghost of Tom Joad. Morello was drafted in as a guitarist for Springsteen’s Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour in March 2013, when Steve van Zandt couldn’t make it. Springsteen’s choice to include Morello was inspired. “Tom Morello and his guitar became my muse,” said Springsteen of the album. After delivering a kick-ass live version of The Ghost of Tom Joad on the first night in Brisbane (where Springsteen and Morello traded verses) and encouraging Springsteen to cover Australian punk band The Saint’s song Just Like Fire Would on the same night, Morello convinced the Boss to revive an old cover, High Hopes, which was originally recorded for the Blood Brothers EP in 1996. The E Street Band would play High Hopes on the second night of the tour in Brisbane and four times again on the tour.
Springsteen was so enamoured with his new guitarist that he took the band into studio in Australia and cut High Hopes and a cover of Just Like Fire Would. This changed the face of Springsteen’s new album, which producer Ron Aniello had been working on since December 2012, when Bruce first played the producer the collection of older songs he wanted to work with. All of a sudden, with Morello as the impetus, the album had a title track and the guitarist began to record new parts over old recordings that Springsteen was looking to use for the new album. The cohesion of the songs on the album could be largely attributed to Morello’s guitar − three of the four songs that sound out of place are the ones that don’t feature Morello. So, yes, there are some cohesion problems with the songs. And, yes, maybe if Springsteen had abandoned these four songs and recorded five more for the album with Morello this would be a much better album. But maybe not. What I do know is that American Skin (41 Shots), High Hopes and the full band version of The Ghost of Tom Joad alone are worth the price of the album. Besides, in this day of digital download sales, who has to pay more than they want to for a song? After my first month of listening, I reckon it’s the best album Springsteen has released since Magic. Here is my rundown through Springsteen’s 12 new songs.
With the title track of his new album, Springsteen comes roaring out of the traps, backed by Morello on guitar. It’s a rousing slab of propellant rock’n’roll. Springsteen is belting out his call for love, peace and redemption as Morello and the Afrobeat-styled horn section add party-fueling flourishes. The song was written and recorded in 1987 by Tim Scott McConnell and again in 1990 by the raucous roots band Havalinas. This is the version Springsteen heard, which led to him recording a version in 1996 for the Blood Brothers EP. With Morello’s prompting, the Boss revisited the song in Australia on last year’s Wrecking Ball tour and this gave rise to the new recording. It’s a show of great energy from the 64-year-old rock veteran.
Morello’s metallic-funk guitar sound dominates this song, which also features saxophone from the late Clarence Clemons. The track was originally recorded in 2002 for The Rising and Morello’s guitar was added later. The song details the lifestyle of a local outlaw type and is a welcome addition to Springsteen’s catalogue after Morello gave it a facelift.
American Skin (41 Shots)
Written during the 1999 resurrection of the E Street Band, this song is described by biographer Peter Ames Carlin as a breakthrough for Springsteen as it was the first time he had written a song about an event that was still making newspaper headlines. “In this, Bruce crossed a bridge he’d avoided in the 20 years since he began to explore the larger socioeconomic factors that control the fates of the working class and the poor,” writes Carlin in his 2013 biography, Bruce. “That he tended to pursue larger issues through character-driven stories made it easy to avoid specific controversies.” The song detailed the murder of a 22–year-old Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times by four plain-clothes New York police officers when they mistook his wallet for a gun. He was struck by 19 of the bullets. “Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life!” sings Springsteen in the chorus. By the time Morello comes in to take the song skyward with a soaring solo, the listener is able to transcend the tragic tale; like most of Springsteen’s best songs, it restores hope and faith. And Springsteen is right there in the middle of the mess, “Got my boots caked in this mud / We’re baptised in these waters and in each other’s blood,” he sings, acknowledging the systemic nature of the racist state. In the closing verse Springsteen sings, “You can get killed just for living / In your American skin”. It’s a kicker that holds up a mirror to American society to see its racism writ large. The song took on a controversy of its own when it was first played live, with Republican politicians accusing Springsteen of stirring up racial unrest. The fact that the police officers had chequered pasts when it came to excessive use of force made the tragedy even more poignant. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani attacked Springsteen and said “people” were “trying to create the impression that the police officers are guilty”. The police responded by calling for officers not to work security at Springsteen shows, and public statements were released that referred to Springsteen as “floating fag” and a “dirtbag”. The Boss reintroduced the song into his Wrecking Ball set as a tribute to Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy who was shot dead by George Zimmerman in February 2012. It was probably this development that led to the recording of a new version. It’s the best song on the new album and one that is poignant for a South African society seemingly at war with its police.
Just Like Fire Would
Just Like Fire Would was originally released in 1987 on the All Fools Day album by Australian punk band The Saints. Morello encouraged Springsteen to perform a cover of the song in the band’s hometown in 2013 and it was subsequently covered for the new album. More rollicking than Chris Bailey’s original, Just Like Fire Would is a great addition to High Hopes.
Down in the Hole
Another song that is said to date back to The Rising sessions, Down in the hole features Clemons again on saxophone and the late Danny Federici on organ. Although it wasn’t recorded with Morello, the song easily slips into the feel of High Hopes. After a minimalist industrial percussive clatter, the banjo comes forward to lead the gentle song. Springsteen’s voice is like a distant radio broadcast from a forgotten America. When the drums kick in properly in the second verse, the song gains some legs but still remains muted. It’s hard to imagine why a song this good would not have been included on The Rising, but it just goes to show the important role these “odds and sods” records can play in recovering Springsteen’s lost gems.
One of the highlights of Springsteen’s recent shows in South Africa, Heaven’s Wall is a bolshie gospel track that was originally recorded sometime between 2002 and 2008, and some scorching guitar work from Morello was added to it after the fact. Opening with a gospel choir, belting out “raise your hands, raise your hands, raise your hands” to the backing of a percussive rhythm, the song soon explodes into a full-band rocker. By the time Morello pops up with some guitar histrionics around the two-minute mark, it feels like a tornado of spiritual rock’n’roll. Props need to go to Sam Bardfeld for some inspired violin work.
Frankie Fell in Love
An old demo that has never been played live, Frankie Fell in Love was recorded in 2013 for High Hopes, but it’s not clear when it was written. Just before the South African tour, Springsteen debuted the songs live, playing a set with the band Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Although the song is a rocking little number, you can’t help but feel the lyrics are a little sub-par for the Boss.
This Is Your Sword
This is the worst song on the album, hands down. It reminds me of Death to My Hometown from the Wrecking Ball album in that both songs seem to carry what feels like a forced Celtic influence that jars with the other songs. The metaphor seems clichéd and overwrought; it really is a dud. Recorded in 2013, the song was debuted live on January 29 in Cape Town.
Hunter of Invisible Game
This is a tough one. It’s a great song, but its arrangement jars with the rest of the album. The gentle percussion from Max Weinberg and the string section provide a great backing for Springsteen to do his best Bob Dylan impression. “Now pray for yourself that you may not fall / When the hour of deliverance comes on us all / When our hope and faith and courage and trust / Can rise or vanish like dust into dust,” sings Springsteen. Although it’s a magnificent song that’s wonderfully recorded (sometime between 2002 and 2008), it feels a little out of place on the album.
The Ghost of Tom Joad
The original had barely audible guitar; Springsteen’s voice was just a whisper. Then those gentle drums picked up the slack, rolling the song along. This new recording starts with a guitar and drum cacophony, which signals immediately that this is a very different version. With Morello at the helm of a song with which he is intimately familiar (Rage Against the Machine covered it) The Ghost of Tom Joad is reimagined as a snarling rocker in which he sings the alternate verses. It was this version that was the centerpiece of Springsteen’s South African shows.
Written in 1998, The Wall was based on an idea from fellow songwriter Joe Grushecky. It details Springsteen’s visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC and recalls a New Jersey musician, Walter Cichon, who never returned from the war. “Walter was one of the great early Jersey Shore rockers, who along with his brother Ray (one of my early guitar mentors) led the Motifs. The Motifs were a local rock band who were always a head above everybody else. Raw, sexy and rebellious, they were the heroes you aspired to be,” Springsteen has said. It’s a beautiful tribute and protest song, but again it feels out of place on the album.
Dream Baby Dream
To bring it all home, Springsteen appropriates the 1979 Suicide track Dream Baby Dream. The song was recently reimagine by Neneh Cherry and the Thing on their album Cherry Thing, but Springsteen first began performing the song in 2005 when touring the Devils & Dust album, which brings me back full circle. The Boss would close out his 2005 shows with a version of the song performed on a mellotron, and now again he closes off his latest album with the same song. Perhaps High Hopes and Devils & Dust share a lot more than meets the eye.