If The Boss had never made another record after Born in the U.S.A., it still would’ve been more than enough. Shit, if all he’d ever done was rock out that one epic version of “Born to Run” at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1975 and hung it up right then and there the second he stepped off stage—that would have been enough. Not to be dismissive of his latter-day work—recent albums such as Magic, Working on a Dream and Wrecking Ball were better-than-solid, evidence of an artist who, after four decades, continues to bring a sense of passion and discovery to the record-making process.
But this latest venture, which is being billed as Springsteen’s 18th studio album, is a perplexing affair. Not because because of how it turned out, but because it was ever intended as a proper album in the first place. Really, High Hopes sounds exactly like what it is—a loose collection of re-recorded outtakes and covers cut all over the damned place in five different cities, at just as many studios, with three different producers (including Springsteen), three different mix engineers and a rotating cast of musicians. While Springsteen is notorious for painstakingly sequencing his albums, High Hopes was a losing battle—a puzzle with pieces that, more often than not, just don’t interlock.
That said, this is still a Springsteen record, and the songs—especially the ones Bruce wrote—are all pretty amazing across the board, especially “American Skin (41 Shots),” originally written for Amadou Diallo (an unarmed immigrant controversially gunned down by plainclothes NYPD using what many considered excessive, unjustified force) and resurrected in recent years in Springsteen’s live sets, often accompanied by a dedication to Trayvon Martin. Unfortunately, despite some great songs, the arrangements and instrumentation on High Hopes do not often follow suit, leaning toward bombastic overkill when they’d be better served by a more subtle, tasteful directness.
This is most aptly illustrated by the guest guitar work of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, particularly on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which otherwise might’ve been a satisfying, Crazy Horse-angsty re-imaginging of one of Springsteen’s post-’80s classics. Morello’s solos on this track are screechingly awful, his pinch harmonics a thumb in the eye. They have no business whatsoever here, nor does the “November Rain” parade of six-string excess, capped by the woozy arpeggiated swirl of wah-wah sirens and Morello’s obnoxious (if successful) attempts to make his guitar sound like DJ scratching. Works great on those old Rage records; sounds downright silly on a Springsteen album.
There are bright spots—Bruce’s moving vocal performance on “American Skin,” his hungry cover of The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would,” the contemplative, genuinely profound mediation “Hunter of Invisible Game,” the hook-heavy heartland roots pop of “Frankie Fell in Love”—but for every rock ‘n’ roll fire that starts to smolder, there’s some curious New Age synth drone, startlingly out-of-place Worldbeat eruption or worse (the ‘80s hair-metal power-ballad guitar break in the middle of “American Skin”) to douse the spark.
By the time Bruce’s heartfelt, slow-burning excavation of the gorgeous song hiding under the shoddy veneer of proto-synthpunk band Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” closes out the record, High Hopes itself feels like an enigmatic, disjointed dream—one you ponder and ponder before deciding, “best not think too deeply on this one.”