Greasy Lake

Greasy Lake Review: High Hopes

Published 2014-01-19
Karsten Stanley Andersen
By Karsten Stanley Andersen

For an album that is, allegedly, mostly meant to tie up some loose ends and fulfill Bruce’s desire to release more music, the new High Hopes album, released last week, has been the subject of an unexpected controversy. Bruce shouldn’t include cover songs, he should write new songs instead of releasing leftovers, Tom Morello has no place on a Springsteen record, the music sucks … Those have been just some of the complaints from fans who have seemed personally insulted by Bruce’s choices.

Taste is taste and opinions are opinions, and everybody is entitled to theirs. There’s no doubt this is in some ways an unusual album: the inclusion of three cover songs, the re-recording of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, the significant fingerprints by a non-E Street Band member on an otherwise mostly E Street Band album, the fact that there are no newly written songs on it. Those are all firsts for Bruce. However, including songs recorded for earlier projects? Not so much. Bruce has done that for almost as long as there has been such a thing as “earlier projects” for him.

Besides the fact that you can probably go through every Springsteen album and make an equally long list of “firsts” for every one of them (the Born to Run album was the first album that saw Bruce let in a new producer… Jon Landau), if you feel that these particular “firsts” somehow disqualify High Hopes from being a proper, worthwhile Springsteen album, that would be a mistake and deprive you of some pretty outstanding musical moments.

Back in the mid-Nineties, in an interview with Neil Strauss, Bruce, like he often did, expressed a desire to release more music, but what was more interesting was that he wanted to release albums based not so much on a lyrical common denominator, but on a sound or an instrument. He wanted to make a guitar album.

With High Hopes Bruce hasn’t made an album based on the guitar so much as an album based on a guitarist. Rather than a common theme or a common period in time, Tom Morello is the glue that holds High Hopes together. His instrument can be heard on most of the tracks, and he is directly responsible for at least two song inclusions: “High Hopes”, which he brought to Bruce’s attention before the Australian tour in 2013, and “Hunter of Invisible Game”, a Springsteen demo that Brendan O’Brien had played privately to Morello in the studio.

But although this isn’t a guitar album per se, it’s still the most guitar-oriented studio album Bruce has released. From Morello’s rhythmic licks on the title track to his majestic and frantic final solo of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, we get numerous examples of his sublime technique that still somehow never gets in the way of the emotion he puts into his strings. This of course is a matter of taste. To these ears, his playing blends perfectly with Bruce’s music and adds new dimensions. The “scratch” sequence that culminates the “The Ghost of Tom Joad” solo is just one example of an unlikely and yet fitting addition to a song that, until recently, we thought was a somber folk tune.

High Hopes may not be as thematically structured as Wrecking Ball or Tunnel of Love or Magic, but it’s not like the songs point in 12 different directions. We are for the most part in familiar Bruce territory. Hope and dreams in the face of struggle. And violence. Violence seems to be running rampant. From the unspeakable violence lingering just beneath the surface in “Harry’s Place”, to the bloody river of “American Skin”, the aftermath of a terror attack in “Down in the Hole”, and the broken war veteran of “The Wall”, violence is all around, literally, or the consequences of it. Heck, even love uses a sword in “This Is Your Sword”.

Speaking of “The Wall”, if you thought High Hopes was just a bunch of random songs thrown randomly together, that segue from the screeching guitar attack of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” to the no less powerful acoustic opening chords of “The Wall” must rank among the greatest pairings of any songs on any Springsteen album.

Stylistically, High Hopes is the perfect summary of the 21st century Bruce. Echoes of The Rising, Seeger Sessions, Devils & Dust, Magic, Working on a Dream, and Wrecking Ball are all present. While “Down in the Hole” is often - rightfully - compared with “I’m on Fire”, an even more obvious companion piece would be “Paradise” from The Rising. “This Is Your Sword” would have blended right in on Wrecking Ball, and “Frankie Fell in Love”, one of Bruce’s best garage rockers since The River album, would have been a great alternative to Working on a Dream’s “My Lucky Day”, which is the kind of song that would have come out of a computer programmed to write a Bruce Springsteen song.

If you need a new Springsteen song and don’t want to use a computer and don’t have the man himself on hand, the best solution may be to contact Australian alternative rock band The Saints. They wrote “Just Like Fire Would”, the second of three cover songs on High Hopes. Of all the songs on the album, this is perhaps the most archetypal Bruce Springsteen song, including Bruce’s own. Channeling his best 1978 voice, Bruce delivers a passionate and intense vocal performance that should convince even the skeptics that he owns this song as much as he owns Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped”. “Just Like Fire Would” was recorded in Australia mid-tour in 2013. Hopefully not the last time Bruce uses this approach.

So while most songs on High Hopes revisit styles from earlier projects, not everything sounds familiar. “High Hopes” itself points forward to a new E Street Band era of funky rhythms that may be modern, but are also rooted way back around The Wild, the Innocent. And “Heaven’s Wall” may have gospel written all over it, but there’s something else. Could it be - deliberate or not - Bruce’s first attempt at… disco? Horrifying to some. A minor revelation to those of us who, in our older days, all of a sudden find ourselves appreciating enticing bass lines and slightly cheesy synthesizer strings.

The album ends with the hypnotic “Dream Baby Dream” known from the Devils & Dust Tour. Repeating that live version in the studio would have been impossible. It took a two-hour concert to lead up to that and make it work. So here we get a more polished, stringent version that almost unnoticeably grows from a voice and keyboard to what sounds like a full orchestra.

And in much the same way, the High Hopes album grows on repeated listenings from insignificant to a fully-fledged Bruce Springsteen album that may not threaten Born to Run and Darkness on the throne of Bruce Springsteen albums, but which also cannot be dismissed as a throwaway of stale leftovers. Listen to the music and forget about the distractions. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll.


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Peter Jenkins writes: Karsten

I agree totally with your conclusions. This is a fine Bruce album and one which I feel we'll be enjoying for a long time. Morello is perfect on this album - I hope that he will be an adjunct to the band rather than replacing any member. It's good too to have some last reminders of Clarence and Danny. I don't think it's a throwaway album at all - with songs like "Frankie" and "Harry's Place" how can it be ?
Vincent Simpson writes: Very surprised just how well the album holds together as a journey considering the songs are from various eras and artists, by the time Dream Baby Dream rolls in you are at the close of a proper piece of work not just some stopgap as some have suggested. The Wall is magnificent and i've even grown to really love the rocked up Tom Joad.
Tears and defiance, as ever. Wonderful.
Daniel Parnis writes: Absolutely love the new record, especially 41 shots, GOTJ and The Wall. Looking forward to 5 concerts in Feb!
Lois Fundis writes: "Stylistically, High Hopes is the perfect summary of the 21st century Bruce." This sums up my feelings about the album, too.
Rich Dolan writes: I agree with almost everything you say,except I get the feeling you may not be a fan of My Lucky Day which I feel is underrated along with the rest of Working on A Dream.Other than that I feel that this album has to be listened to and appreciated for what it is.I love BTR ,Darkness,The River and Nebraska as much as all the die hard fans out there but you have to realize that as much as some of you might like it to happen it simply is no longer 1978 any longer.Thanks for listening.I just had to politely get that off my chest.
George Vaughan, England writes: I love the album. I wasn't expecting to like it as much as i do. You can quibble about the covers, or toms involvement, but that makes it more unique. Tom joad is transformed into a brilliant powerful rock song that wakes you up in the morning, and the wall is just so beautiful. I also like Frankie fell in love particularly. Everything is fine but I'm not that keen on high hopes actually, but I think it's a great album overall and shows bruce is still turning out brilliant and relevant music.
Jeff writes: Although not a "Bruce classic," this album is by far his best album since Magic. The last two albums were absolutely horrid. I find HH refreshing, upbeat, and a nice change from the same old E Street sound. The songs are all good and nicely produced, unlike the garbage of WOAD & the absolute crappiness of WB. I have been to over 50 shows and loved every album until the last 2, and not agreeing with his liberal politics, I decided I was done with him after WB. But I absolutely love this new album. I am moving to New Orleans next month, I will be at the Jazz Festival. Just when I thought I was out, he pulls me back in! Damn you Bruce! LOL
Gary Hudson writes: I found myself agreeing with almost all of this - a fair and open-minded review which recognises that the Morello factor is the glue binding these disparate songs into a coherent and very listenable whole. There are classic Bruce moments throughout and having seen the GOTJ solo live a couple of years ago and now Frankie Fell In Love at Light of Day, I reckon many of these songs will be highlights of E Street shows for years to come.
Martin Bo Andersen writes: Very nice review, thanks. Regular reviews don't add this level of analysis, and when it's as straightforward sensible and not pretentious, it's a sheer pleasure to read. You really GIVE something to the reader, more than just your opinion.
The album has been a very positive surprise to me, a really great one, actually. Except for the first track, I'm afraid. I agree with the honorable reviewer that the voice is passionate and intense. But the song itself "is" not Bruce, and the sound, production, instruments ... please wait, while I'm searching for nicer words than "a (bad) joke" :-) It's so out of place, sorry.
But the album - great!
Niall writes: Loved the album and cannot understand the vitriol from so called life long fans. In my book you simply arent a true fan if you cant see past the first listen and understand whats on offer. Any cd that includes 3 of his best songs of the last 25 years is worth a listen any day of the week.
Niall writes: Jeff what do you smoke? A vet of 50 shows and you call WB "HORRID"? Mental.
john driscoll writes: As I life long fan I want to love every album but this once again just doesn't cut it. Ever since Magic I've been disappointed. The production is compressed and harsh. On some solo's you have a hard time identifying the instrument. The Wall is the best song on the album. What did it for me was when I heard Highway Patrolman on the radio recently, I hadn't heard it for along time and it completely blew me away. Bruce just doesn't write anything of this staggering quality anymore. Melody lyrics production are all vastly superior. And he wrote songs as good as that in truck loads back then. Now there's plenty of swagger and sweat but little melody, nuance, or depth. His best moments live are the older material like the piano version of The Promise.
Jeff writes: Niall, 3 of his best songs from the past 25 years?!! Not quite. Your tastes obviously are not very discerning now, are they? I am an ardent fan, but unlike most others who make that claim, I dont allow that to cloud my judgement of quality. What in God's name are you smoking? And yes, WB is weak at best, the only Bruce CD I ever extricated from my collection.
Jeff writes: Niall, to say Im mental because of my musical tastes is very narrow minded, dont ya think? I could say in response that your tastes lack a discerning quality, but I wont. Best 3 songs of the last 25 years?!! Probably not. Here are the best 3 in my opinion, Waiting on the End of the World, Galveston Bay, and Silver Palomino. I am an ardent fan, but unlike most that make that same claim, I can look at the man and his music with some objectivity and lack of hero worship. Can you Niall?
Mark Vasto writes: This is the current Bruce Springsteen record. As a fan of Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I love this record. But I also admit to imagining all the "Wild and Innocent" era fans frowning during Tom's solos and loving it almost just for that.

It's not BTR, but it's a brilliant album and it stands on it's own. I have learned to go with Springsteen's flow since The Rising. I get what he's doing and appreciate it. When I was a kid I used to wish Bruce would add "more guitars" like he used to say and now that he's doing it, I'm fully on board. Danny would not have liked this direction but it's where Bruce always wanted to go. He's still got that compulsion to shred. Highway to Hell in Australia when Tom, Nils, Miami Steve, and Bruce traded licks was incredible. Can there be any doubt that this is the best touring band in the world right now? Miss Danny and Clarence but definitely enjoying Bruce as he moves further on up the road.

Allan Pyke writes: A well written review. I admire your optimism. Unfortunately, for me, the album is sub standard. It is his worst release along with WOAD. Its a hodge podge album with no unifying themes. Wrecking Ball had that in spades along with some tracks that will remain in his live shows. We can't say that about WOAD and I believe we won't be able to say the same about this album. If Bruce wanted to revisit some old songs that didn't see a proper release, why not Another Thin Line and Code of Silence? To each his own. I liked LT and HT when most didn't. Its ok. They all can't be gems such as BTR and Darkness. This one was very disappointing for me.
Mike Simpson writes: Acknowledging criticisms by third parties at the outset does not of itself make for a balanced review. To me the review reads as a very soft and favourably biased review. At any level in comparison with the vast bulk of Springsteen's catalogue this new album lacks coherence and ambition. Whilst it's not all bad and has some great moments it is in the round for me at best disappointing. In my opinion 'High Hopes' does not merit a full album release but is more akin to an interesting side project and almost suggestive of chucking out an album to meet contractual obligations. It might have been more appropriate to be scaled back to an EP or 'budget release' in old terms or a download only release.
My disappointment stems from a firm belief that Bruce can do much better and a 'new album' bearing his name should be better. I agree fully with Allan's comments and unfortunately believe this album will soon largely fade in the memory.
Mike writes: A musician, as an artist, is no more obligated to put out music deemed appropriate by the masses then is a painter required to cover a canvass with themes imposed on him or her. Springsteen's choice to release an album of material he either created earlier or covering another songwriters material simply expands his musical horizons for himself and those fans who truly enjoy his music. If you have been a fan for as long as I have, starting with 1973's The Wild....etc, then you come to expect different textures and approaches to what he releases. Sit back and enjoy, take in a show, compile a playlist and enjoy the songs Bruce puts forth, there are after-all hundreds to choose from.
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