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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Recording review - Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes (2014)

Old songs give Bruce some new kicks

Grizzled and defiant, Bruce Springsteen could be a character in one of his own songs. In this case, it would feature a man looking back on his career. By the end, he’d discover and prove his continued relevance. High Hopes does just that as it resurrects a collection of reworked tunes and album outtakes and, with help from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, infuses them with immediacy. The album is both immensely satisfying and somewhat frustrating. It’s a joy to hear Springsteen sound so invigorated, but focusing on older material gives the project a retrospective spin. Two of the strongest pieces, “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, have each been previously released in other versions. That leaves dedicated followers no choice but to ruefully shrug and accept some familiar songs instead of an all new album. But more casual fans won’t necessarily recognize them and they’ll appreciate the record as a powerful showcase for Springsteen’s favorite theme of ordinary people finding strength to face adversity.

High Hopes wastes no time tackling that topic as it leads off with the title track. Springsteen originally recorded the tune in 1995 and released it on the 1996 Blood Brothers EP. His version here is fairly close to Tim Scott McConnell’s original, albeit scaled up and supersized. Springsteen roughly rasps his way through the song like a classic bluesman while the rest of the E Street Band adds a soulful call and response. The up-tempo beat and starting energy radiate vitality. Tight horns tag the lines while Morello fills out the sound. His squealing guitar solo contrasts with the soul-revue production, like a young turk stepping in to shake things up, but that challenge underscores the urgency of the chorus.

While “High Hopes” kick starts the album, “American Skin (41 Shots)” captures Springsteen in full sermon mode. The progressive message, originally written about Amadou Diallo’s death at the hands of police in New York, could just as easily come from more recent headlines referencing Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride among others. That relevance is why the song has become a staple again in Springsteen’s setlists since his 2012 tour. This arrangement is very similar to the earlier releases, both the live version from Live in New York City (2001) and the rarer studio version. It even preserves Clarence Clemons’ sax riffs, but the new production emphasizes Morello’s guitar, which updates the piece and makes it more vibrant.

Morello has such a strong presence on the album that it’s quite noticeable when he sits out for a song. Tracks like “Frankie Fell in Love” fall back into Springsteen’s classic sound, in this case reflecting the light-touch character sketches he wrote for The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973). In the context of High Hopes, these tunes feel like they’re revisiting the past. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re weak: “This is Your Sword” makes for a rousing ballad that is perfectly designed for live performance, and it’s easy to imagine the crowd singing along. But the time spent playing and recording with Morello during the Australian portion of the 2013 Wrecking Ball tour seems to have inspired the bulk of High Hopes.

In that light, the remake of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is the centerpiece of the album. The two men have a long history with this song. Rage Against the Machine covered the tune back in 1997, transforming it with thrash and grind to create an alt-rock reconstruction of the folk piece. In 2008, Morello and Springsteen worked up a duet version that they performed and recorded during Springsteen’s Magic tour. The High Hopes version follows the 2008 duet model, with swapped verses and extended guitar solos. The song opens with a crescendo that gives way to a pensive moment of mournful strings and the light haunting tone of steel guitar. After the first verse, it picks up a driving rhythm and defiant guitars to raise a battle cry. It’s a solid rocker with strong dynamic shifts that span from resolute indignation to introspective recollection. The solo section pits the two guitars against each other, with Morello’s singing tone coming out on top.

Even if these are not entirely new songs, High Hopes catches Springsteen at his most engaged. Touching on the various facets of his past, from arena rock and diatribes against injustice to short vignettes and moody folk, he doesn’t just rehash his high points. Instead, he taps into the emotional truth that has fueled his writing and reforges the connection to his audience. Even when he’s singing someone else’s words, like the closer “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide, Springsteen channels the hopeful optimism into a universal prayer: “Come on, we gotta keep the light burning/ Come on and dream, baby, dream.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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