My strong impression of Bruce Springsteen’s general approach to crafting albums is that he agonizes over every bit of every song, and then he agonizes some more about the way those songs fit together. This leads to the perception (and sometimes truth) that each and every time he signs off on a studio album it stands as a definitive artistic statement, as further evidenced by the massive backlog of material that was deemed unworthy. Only The Boss, for example, could have enough spare stuff leftover from the creation of a seminal work to eventually release a two-disc set of cast-offs that sounded better than most first-choice collections. I’ve long admired that diligence (his devotion to the art of the album had a significant part in inspiring my teenage fandom), but I’ve also wondered if there might be some value in Springsteen taking a little looser approach every once in a while, throwing together a batch of songs, say, that he just felt like playing at any given time. To a degree, that’s what he’s delivered with his newest album, High Hopes, a completely atypically collection of old songs reworked, covers and other stray bits from his own history, all recorded in comparatively slapdash manner while touring with the E Street Band. I thought such an approach would be freeing for Springsteen in a way that yielded a altogether different, energized album. It seems I was wrong.
To rationalize the potential value of my original theory, High Hopes isn’t quite as roughly conceived and assembled as the above paragraph implies. Producer Ron Aniello attests to Springsteen’s continued obsession with sequencing, all with an eye towards the album holding together as a whole. It is, however, largely comprised of songs that were originally conceived to have a home elsewhere, including the title cut, a cover of a song written by Tim Scott McConnell and recorded with his band the Havalinas, in 1990. Hell, Springsteen has already taken a pass at the song, on the 1996 EP Blood Brothers. It’s no wonder he keeps returning to “High Hopes,” as the lyrics “I wanna have a wife/ I wanna have some kids/ I wanna look in their eyes/ And know they stand a chance” encapsulates Springsteen’s career-long thesis of humble working man aspirations as well as anything the man himself has written. As an album opener, it’s actually fairly promising, offering a progression into rueful perseverance after the embittered assessment of the remaining shards of the demolished American dream in Springsteen’s fine return to form on 2012’s Wrecking Ball.
Much of the remaining album doesn’t deliver, not so much because of its somewhat scattered quality, but because many of the songs themselves are lacking. It’s great that Springsteen revived “American Skin (41 Shots)” on his recent tour in order to dedicate the song to Trayvon Martin, but the powerful transferable quality of the song in a live setting doesn’t necessarily work on record, where its original inspiration from the Amadou Diallo killing looms larger, making the song sound a little dated, even as its empathetic mournfulness about automatic societal persecution of people strictly on the basis of appearance remains sadly as pertinent as ever. Still, a track feeling musty because of the chronological distance of its instigating current event isn’t nearly as problematic as a song coming across old because of cheesy, outdated production. Springsteen has always favored a heavy sheen on his songs, which Jon Landau miraculously balanced against the performer’s undeniable earnestness across their years of collaboration. More recent collaborators like Aniello and Brendan O’Brien, both accounted for here, simply don’t handle it as effectively. The cover of “Just Like Fire Would,” originally by the Saints, is a prime example of a song that’s not strong enough to transcend the layer of hard candy gloss that coats it, while the echoes of the electronic-tinged backing track from “I’m on Fire” on “Down in the Hole” are an insurmountable distraction.
Perhaps the underlying problem with High Hopes is the influence of former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, an unabashed Springsteen fanatic who was recruited to fill in for Steven Van Zandt (committed to an acting gig) during the Wrecking Ball tour. Now evidently a full-fledged E Street Band member, Morello’s urging led Springsteen to revisit “High Hopes” in the first place, and at least two other tracks (the Saints cover and the album-closing, adequate cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”) were the direct result of his suggestions. Combine that with the wholly unnecessary, rawked-up reworking of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a song Morello covered with Rage Against the Machine, and it starts to feel like a weird sort of fan fiction, the newly recruited sideman helping to develop the Springsteen album of his happiest dreams. That undoubtedly gives Morello too much credit (this is THE Boss we’re talking about), but by all accounts he helped steer Springsteen in certain directions, and some of the hollowest portions of High Hopes are the result.
Pushing sixty-five, it’s not that surprising that Springsteen would be reflective enough to look back through neglected portions of his hefty songbook nor that he’s invested enough in getting new albums out there that he’d start a new one before finishing the process of touring on the old one. But High Hopes doesn’t offer a strong endorsement of him following this unusual tack. Maybe looser isn’t better, after all. For his next outing, The Boss should take all the time he needs.