The past decade has seen Bruce Springsteen elevated to a new pantheon of American music. His involvement with Obama’s Presidential campaign and adoption by a new breed of blue-collar rockers has placed The Boss in a glass case marked: Thou Shalt Not Touch.
Yet the New Jersey rocker – despite his overwhelming success rate – is still human, still capable of the odd misstep.
‘High Hopes’ sadly, contains more than a few of them. A mixed batch of recordings, his 18th studio set underlines Springsteen’s depth, but also his failings.
Opening with the positives, ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ is one of the most urgent things Springsteen has set his name beside in years. Reintroduced to his set list following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin – the song dates from the late-‘90s – it’s an example of the songwriter placing his fingers on the pulse of ordinary America, of finding the common humanity underneath the debate.
‘Dream Baby Dream’ is a beautiful, elegiac cover. Sure, it’s a slightly more sedate arrangement than the sparse solo treatment which adorned a 2009 Alan Vega tribute disc, but it nonetheless emphasises the reverence with which Springsteen holds the Suicide canon.
The Tim Scott-penned title cut, meanwhile, is driven by some relentless ‘Sympathy For The Devil’-style drums, before turning into a near-industrial plea of disgust – against the pressures placed on working people during a recession climate. ‘Frankie Fell In Love’ is a bright, earnest acoustic romp, reminiscent of 2006’s ‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’ before those crunching electric guitars plunge through.
Yet too often ‘High Hopes’ falls beneath the songwriter’s own lofty standards. Tom Morello’s contributions – although undoubtedly worthy – can jar, with the new recording of ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ perhaps the most clearly offensive. Stretching out to seven and a half minutes, it aims to recreate the electricity of a live concert. But in reality it’s a pompous, plodding arrangement that borders on cod-folk-metal.
‘Harry’s Place’ contains some rather embarrassing wah-wah guitar, while Celtic rocker ‘This Is Your Sword’ feels slight when placed alongside Springsteen’s more recent highs.
Ultimately, ‘High Hopes’ isn’t intended as a full statement, as a concentrated studio document, and nor should it be evaluated as such. With its sharply defined highs and curiously odd misses, there’s more than enough here for dedicated fans to sift through, to extrapolate new shades of Springsteen from. For the rest of us, though, there isn’t quite enough to hold our attention.
Words: Robin Murray
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Listen to 'High Hopes' in full via Deezer, below...