Published Jan 13, 2014This is not a Bruce Springsteen album proper, and so it can't really be judged against any of his previous efforts, except for possibly the equally mixed bag that was 2009's Working on a Dream. That record, too, was a self-acknowledged hodgepodge of reheated leftovers, outtakes, and miscellaneous debris (primarily from the previous, masterpiece-esque Magic), which was a curious dispatch from the normally stringent quality control-conscious Springsteen camp. In his first two decades as a professional rock star, Springsteen was known for being finicky and deliberating over the slightest nuance in his recorded work, occasionally frustrating fans with both his lack of official product and, perhaps most vexingly, his dismissal of strong songs that became fan favourites live or via illicit bootlegs (the latter attribute could be called 'Dylan-ing it').
In recent years, Springsteen has responded to the immediacy of digital music services by being less precious but no less indecisive. It's telling that High Hopes, like 2012's Wrecking Ball and the aforementioned Working on a Dream, features older, familiar material, as though rounding out a whole album of fresh ideas is becoming somewhat elusive for one of the strongest writers and performers in capital 'R' Rock music.
Ironically, High Hopes leaves fans with much to be cynical about. For every revelation like the stirring title track (a Havalinas cover that sounds like it made into the studio after being a fun surprise to play live), The Rising-era "Down in the Hole" and the Saints' "Just Like Fire Would," there are odd anomalies like "Harry's Place," which sounds like an unsubtle re-writing of The Sopranos theme song (Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning") and return trips to "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
These, like many of the songs here seem tonally off because of Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who filled in for Steve Van Zandt on some legs of the Wrecking Ball tour and pushed some of these song ideas forward. In the liners, Springsteen says, "his guitar became my muse," but its swirling, wah-wah trickery feels like a 'new' production trap the Boss occasionally falls into and doesn't enhance or rebrand songs that are already iconic or entrenched in the hearts and minds of Springsteen fans.
Given that these recordings span different eras and sessions, High Hopes does have a cohesiveness, flow, and degrees of greatness, but unlike the career-spanning rarities comp Tracks, there's nothing about these lost or revisited songs that screams out "Jackpot!" There are things here that are going to work really well live (if they don't already) but that seems like more of a reason for the E Street Band to be excited about them than Springsteen fans. (Columbia)