When veteran rocker Bruce Springsteen announced that his 18th studio album would consist mainly of outtakes, covers and re-recorded songs, many assumed that the artist was finally scraping the bottom of the barrel. But with the release of “High Hopes,” Springsteen proves that he still has some surprises left even at this point in his long career. The result is a mostly successful experiment that showcases Springsteen’s various stylistic approaches, developed over the past decade and beyond, as well as his newfound musical relationship with guitarist Tom Morello. The album’s songs may not fit together quite as elegantly as they do on many of Springsteen’s previous albums, but the strength of his songwriting and willingness to explore new territory make “High Hopes” a compelling listen.
“High Hopes” kicks off with the title track – the almost-syncopated percussion and the distortion-filled blasts from Morello’s guitar manage to sound unlike any E Street record of previous years. Springsteen sings “High Hopes” – a cover of a 1987 song by Tim Scott McConnell – with a sense of urgency that helps to make the track his own, the protest lyrics complementing many of the themes he has explored for years. Amid horn riffs and chorus cries of “Give me help, give me strength,” Morello launches into his first of numerous solos on the album, unleashing angry squalls and bringing a welcome jolt of energy to the proceedings.
Another highlight is also a cover, this time of Australian rock band The Saints’ 1986 single “Just Like Fire Would.” In Springsteen’s hands, the straightforward rock song displays the hallmark E Street sound, making listeners feel like it has been in the band’s repertoire for years. With a triumphant mix of horns, keyboards and backing vocals by right-hand man Steven Van Zandt, the song demonstrates Springsteen’s skill as an adept arranger of others’ works, an ability evident in the various live covers that he performs with the E Street Band on stage. This classic E Street sound is seen again to great effect in a new Bruce Springsteen original “Frankie Fell in Love,” a lighthearted track in the same vein of many on Springsteen’s classic album “The River” (1980).
The rest of the songs on “High Hopes” are mostly outtakes drawn from Springsteen’s previous recording sessions. While it is here that the album stumbles at times, the varying nature of the tracks documents Springsteen’s various artistic directions over recent years. Many of these numbers find Springsteen exploring different sonic landscapes and contribute to the eclectic tone that marks “High Hopes.” Some of the songs here are standouts, like the eerie “Down in the Hole” and gospel-tinged stomper “Heaven’s Wall.” Springsteen touches on interesting territory with other tracks, including the synth-heavy “Harry’s Place” and “This is Your Sword” – which features strong Celtic influences – but ultimately these tracks miss the mark when compared with some of the album’s stronger pieces.
While there may not be a cohesive vision throughout “High Hopes,” what ties the contrasting sounds of the album together is Morello’s guitar work, which is featured on eight of the 12 tracks. The guitarist’s unique, aggressive and often industrial-like tone was made famous through his work with Rage Against the Machine. Here, Springsteen expertly harnesses Morello’s style, using this unlikely partnership to imbue the E Street Band with a sound that is removed from their usual repertoire. Morello is also incorporated in subtler ways, like when his work is paired with Jake Clemons’ mournful sax solo in the somber “American Skin (41 Shots),” an album highlight that is a re-recorded version of a live Springsteen favorite first released in 2001.
The other re-recorded song on “High Hopes” is “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” originally featured on the titular 1995 album as a haunting acoustic song. Reworked on stage in 2008 as a powerful full band arrangement featuring Morello, its studio debut brings new meaning to this social activist song. Combined with Springsteen’s vocal delivery that lends a world-weariness to the number, Morello takes the original version and injects it with a new fury, delivering a fiery and technically impressive solo that channels all the pent-up anger and frustration of the lyrics. It is a knockout moment on the album, along with an embodiment of the inspiration Morello has brought to Springsteen’s work.
Once the dust clears from “Joad,” Springsteen delivers a final emotional impact with “The Wall,” a heart-wrenching track about the Vietnam Memorial. It’s one of Springsteen’s most poignant songs in years, and is an example of his storytelling prowess at its finest. “The Wall” also demonstrates that, despite its occasional flaws and eclectic feel, “High Hopes” is a rewarding album and the latest success in Springsteen’s storied career.