If you have high hopes about High Hopes, I'm afraid you may be disappointed. Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album is bad. Anybody of Springsteen's caliber would have to make a concerted effort to do a poor job, and that is not the case here. But overall the album is, at best, among his least inspired works.
There are essentially three categories of material on this album: songs Springsteen has performed in concert but hasn't released on a studio album, songs that were recorded for various studio albums but didn't make the final cut (not unusual for Springsteen, whose catalog has typically had a high percentage of recordings that have never been released) and covers of other artists' songs. In other words, the album is made up of things that are usually included with a reissue of an album and described as "bonus" tracks.
Expect the unexpected
From an artist who has done such a masterful job of creating tightly woven themes in his albums, the effect is unsettling. It almost feels like an album an artist didn't really want to record, but was required to in order to fulfill the terms of a recording deal, or to simply capitalize on material that's just sitting on the shelf. Although neither of those apply to this album, it creates that kind of feeling.
If you look at individual tracks out of the context of the rest of the album, there is definitely some enjoyable listening to be found. The electric guitar of Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello brings an edgy rock sound to some of the new rearrangements of familiar songs like "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and "American Skin (41 Shots)". The full blown presence of The E Street Band reminds us once again of the role of that group of standout musicians has played in Springsteen's success (as he would be the first to tell you) and why they are receiving the Award for Musical Excellence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Hall's induction ceremony in April.
I think it's significant that some of the best tracks on this album are covers, including the title song, "High Hopes", which was written by Tim Scott (aka Ledfoot), a relatively obscure singer-songwriter who describes his music as "gothic blues".
Another standout is "Just Like Fire Would" (nice play on words) which was released in 1986 by Australian punk rockers, The Saints.
I don't really know why "Down in the Hole" didn't make it onto The Rising, for which it was originally recorded. I do know that it's nice to find it here. It is quintessential Springsteen, as is "The Wall", which is especially poignant for those of us who lost friends and loved ones in the Vietnam war.
Who's behind door #2?
Classic rock artists fall into three main categories. There are those who have passed away or retired, those who are still performing the songs they were performing back in the day, and those who continue to produce new, inspired music. Until High Hopes, I would have put Springsteen in the last category, but the material that makes up the new album is perilously close to being a return to past glory.
Few artists come close to Springsteen's talent as a songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist. He has many more past glories to rest on than do most of his contemporaries. Maybe he set the bar so high that even he can't consistently reach it after 17 albums over four decades. I don't think you'll be disappointed by what you hear on this album, but you'll be in for a letdown if you have high hopes of hearing the innovation and inspiration that have become Springsteen's trademark.
1. "High Hopes"
2. "Harry's Place"
3. "American Skin (41 Shots)"
4. "Just Like Fire Would"
5. "Down In The Hole"
6. "Heaven's Wall"
7. "Frankie Fell In Love"
8. "This Is Your Sword"
9. "Hunter Of Invisible Game"
10. "The Ghost of Tom Joad"
11. "The Wall"
12. "Dream Baby Dream"
Release date: 1/14/14, available on CD, MP3, and in a limited edition CD/DVD set