Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes

High Hopes (2014)


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


Say what you will about what Bruce has done since becoming an elderly red-faced man with bulging neck veins, but “losing his work ethic” is assuredly not one of them. He still tours like a maniac almost every year, plays 4-hour shows, and even still manages to release a new album every year or two. He’s obviously still finding time to lift weights too because he doesn’t look ridiculous in those form-fitting Baby Gap black t-shirts he wears. Which is why it’s so disappointing that High Hopes feels like a lazy cash grab. That’s because it’s a glorified outtakes collection constituted of mostly re-recorded versions of songs from the preceding twenty years or so that weren’t even considered good enough to make the cut on such classic Bruce albums as Working on a Dream and Devils & Dust. Whoopee!

I mean, come on, Bruce, if you’re gonna go that route, at least give us Tracks Part 2, or continue what you’ve been doing with the reissues of your classic albums gussied up with all the outtakes and such. But nobody gives a crap about this stuff. Well, let me rephrase that. Some people care about this stuff because they are obsessive Bruce freaks and will unironically bring signs to E Street Band shows unironically requesting that they play “Just Like Fire Would” so they can bust a fanboy nut about hearing such a “hidden gem.” But I sure don’t.

The most off-putting thing about High Hopes isn’t so much that the songs themselves suck, however, but that in going back and updating them for release, Bruce and Brendan O’Brien (who has apparently installed himself permanently as Bruce’s right hand man) inexplicably created the most dated-sounding Springsteen record since Human Touch. Meaning that it sounded way, way behind the progressive musical curve pretty much the second it was released. Considering how seamlessly they integrated contemporary production tricks on Wrecking Ball, it’s baffling how inept and obsolescent some of those same elements–electronic percussion, Tom Morello’s guitar work, etc.–sound on High Hopes. Hey, remember that “talking on the phone” vocal effect that went out of style sometime in 2001? They use that on like three songs! And what happened to all those neat electronic drum loops on Wrecking Ball? Well instead, we get “Down in the Hole” (the most overused song title in the history of rock music), the percussion track of which seems to have been constructed haphazardly out from unpleasant ambient sounds recorded at an auto plant! Then there’s fucking “Harry’s Place,” which squanders its tension-filled melody with a dizzying array of late-’80s-style whitebred funk sonic signifiers – wah wah guitar, popping bass, generic cop show sax and all.

As for Morello, well, perhaps Bruce went to that well a few too many times. Fresh off filling in for Little Steven (who was off being an actor) on tour with the E Street Band in 2013, Morello actually plays on more than half of the album. But where his comparatively scant contributions to Wrecking Ball added new and unexpected atmospheric textures to Bruce’s sound, his playing on High Hopes mostly just amounts to squealing histrionics that might as well have been sampled from an old Rage Against the Machine album. I do like his high-octane guitar duel with Bruce on “Heaven’s Wall,” as well as the extended electric version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” on which he takes a turn at the vocal mic – a studio version of a rearrangement that the E Street Band had been playing live for a few years with Morello during his occasional guest appearances. But overall, his guitar reads as yet another element of High Hopes that was supposed to sound hip and modern but ultimately comes across as a bunch of old guys not realizing that the ‘90s are over.

Fortunately, although almost all of side 1 is basically a clusterfuck of outdated overproduction, there’s a nice little run of comparatively unadorned songs on side 2 that are pretty good! Chief among these is “Frankie Fell in Love,” a fun, upbeat jangle rocker with a nice Beatle-y bridge that honestly sounds like it could have been a Born in the U.S.A. outtake (but in actuality originates from the Magic sessions, according to the 30 seconds of Googling I just did). But the pseudo-Irish “This is Your Sword” and the glowing waltz “Hunter of Invisible Game,” which follow in that order, are also very pleasant. And hell, even “The Wall” sounds like a pretty, touching tribute to dead Vietnam soldiers, at least until the moment you realize it’s the world’s most obvious “Independence Day” retread (this will occur, at the absolute latest, after a minute and twenty-one seconds, at which point the organ kicks in and any attempt at pretense is abandoned).

Even with those nice palate cleansers, though, High Hopes leaves a bitter taste. It’s also interesting to note that, since it was a stopgap outtakes collection masquerading as a new album, we haven’t heard any actual new material from Bruce since Wrecking Ball. As it’s about to be 2018, that means this will be at least his longest gap between releasing new material since the six years that separated The Ghost of Tom Joad and The Rising. In the meantime, Bruce has been doing a lot of looking back – with High Hopes, with album reissues, with his autobiography and accompanying Broadway residency. Does that mean he’s finally lost his creative drive? Well, if he’s no longer able to come up with better material than “Down in the Hole,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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