[Update: Since its official release, High Hopes is no longer streaming at the link below; you can hear it on Spotify and elsewhere.]
The fact that Bruce Springsteen’s new album is a polished patchwork of old songs—outtakes, covers, studio recordings of songs that have been performed live, and one reworking of a cut from a studio album (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”)—doesn’t mean that it merits any less anticipation or attention than a new Springsteen album of entirely new material. Among rockers of Springsteen’s stature, only Bob Dylan has plumbed more gold from the vaults.
While Springsteen’s 1998 box Tracks wasn’t as revelatory as Dylan’s first Bootleg Series release—the 1991 set that prompted a reappraisal of the entire preceding decade of Dylan’s output—it showed the public what superfans already knew: that Springsteen isn’t afraid to leave top-notch material on the shelf when it doesn’t fit his vision for any given album.
What brought Springsteen’s new set, High Hopes—now streaming online in advance of its January 14 release (but after an accidental Amazon leak to the public in late December, whoops!)—to fruition was the Boss’s decision that some of his unreleased (or semi-released, or haphazardly released) material could be assembled into a cohesive statement. Working with producer Ron Aniello and with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine—who toured with Springsteen when Steve Van Zandt took a break from the E Street Band to film his series Lillyhammer—Springsteen created High Hopes, his 18th studio album.
How is it? My take is that High Hopes will well-serve Springsteen fans hoping for a souvenir of this period in Bosstory, and who were or will become partisans of any of the particular songs on the album—but that’s about it. Despite the welcome presence of Morello’s guitar work (and Morello’s voice, in a re-recording of Springsteen’s 1995 “Ghost of Tom Joad”) as well as cameos by a motley assortment of instruments, High Hopes isn’t a particularly arresting collection. It more or less amounts to a fifth disc of Tracks, but with fewer revelations and a homogenized texture.
Longtime Springsteen fans will enjoy the nods to earlier incarnations of the heroically hardworking artist, who’s now 64 and is very determinedly refusing to slow down. “Just Like Fire Would,” a cover of the Saints’ 1986 song, romps along like some of Springsteen’s own work from that period (cf. Born in the U.S.A. outtake “Lion’s Den,” heard on Tracks); the sweet “Frankie Fell in Love,” which drops a name very familiar to Boss fans (cf. “Frankie,” another Tracks track left off Born in the U.S.A.); and “The Wall,” a story-song that starts in Springsteen’s half-spoken Tom Joad mode and concludes with soft accordion and organ that recall the early days of the E Street Band.
Many fans, though, are likely to prefer Springsteen’s earlier versions of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the title track of that stark album, which gains no emotional force from the additional voltage applied on High Hopes; “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song originally inspired by the 1999 tragedy of Amadou Diallo, made sadly resonant by the death of Trayvon Martin but more powerfully rendered in its 2000 live recording than in the studio version on High Hopes; and “Dream Baby Dream,” a lite version of Springsteen’s powerful live cover of the 1979 Suicide song.
Like any Springsteen album, High Hopes will reward multiple listenings. What those listenings reveal, only time will tell—but for me, I don’t think this one will come off the shelf as often as recent offerings such as Wrecking Ball and Magic. What are your thoughts?