CK Retro Review: High Hopes by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: June 2, 2014
Is it too soon to already be looking back at an album released just a few months ago? Well, we’re doing it anyway. There are two ways to look at High Hopes. You can be thrilled that, in this age of content, Bruce Springsteen would deign to release a bunch of outtakes, remakes, and covers that otherwise might have languished in the vaults. Or you can be frustrated at the lack of cohesiveness and generally erratic nature of the material. I can see both sides of that coin, so I guess my take is that there are a couple gems, a lot of so-so stuff, no complete clunkers, yet no real revelations either. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Heaven’s Wall”- It never quite ascends into the heavens like Bruce wants it to do, staying stubbornly earthbound no matter how many times the refrain repeats.
11. “Just Like Fire Would”- This cover of an 80’s track by The Saints might have sounded better if Springsteen could have captured a vibe closer to The River, loose and snappy. Instead, it’s more like The Rising, big and lumbering. Strings, horns, and a cast of thousands can’t quite provide a reason why this track needed to be redone.
10. “Harry’s Place”- The song is kind of a one-trick pony musically, just a grinding, Stones-y groove from which Bruce grunts his tale of an underworld boogeyman. Come to think of it, maybe Mick Jagger would have sung it better and given it a little more seedy life. I do like the little twist at the end when the narrator finds himself in the back room about to get pummeled by Harry’s goons, an example of the consequences of temptation and greed.
9. “This Is Your Sword”- The pipes and whistle give this little slice of inspirational rock a Celtic feel that distinguishes it a bit. It sounds like a father talking to his children or a preacher to his flock, and it does its job well enough in its quick two-minute running time.
8. “Dream Baby Dream”- The influence of Suicide on Springsteen’s work can be found going all the way back to the Nebraska album, so he returns the favor with this mantra-like closing track. The catharsis that the slowly building score behind Bruce attempts to bring forth isn’t all that overwhelming, but the song works as an atmospheric change of pace.
7. “High Hopes”- The title track manages to whip up a pretty good slice of rock drama. That said, one of the biggest drawbacks of the album is that the three songs Springsteen chooses to cover, while admirably off the beaten path, don’t come close to the standard of his own best material, making their appearance here a bit of a “why bother?” situation.
6. “Down In The Hole”- Clearly influenced by 9/11 like the majority of The Rising, “Down In The Hole” effectively articulates a survivor’s inability to rise above the impossibly powerful gravitational pull exerted by the loss he suffered. All the rhythmic shifts just make the thing sound unnecessarily disjointed though; it only finds its musical footing in a lovely instrumental break duet with Danny Federici on organ and Soosie Tyrell on violin.
5. “Frankie Fell In Love”- I feel like this was a huge missed opportunity, because the lyrics and melody are both excellent, a refreshing throwback to the nimble wordplay and throwaway subject matter of Springsteen’s two albums. I’m just not sure why the choice was made to bludgeon it with the heavy guitars, drowning many of its subtler charms, or why Bruce sings it in a distractingly wacky cackle. Still, the nostalgic whiff the words and tune provide are enough.
4. “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”- I’ve docked this one a star from its original ranking because I feel like the desolate folk arrangement utilized by Springsteen when he first released it in 1995 serves the subject matter much better. The thunder chords don’t really do anything but distract from the power of the lyrics. Plus, Tom Morello’s vocal makes Bruce sound like one of the Three Tenors. That said, Morello’s extended guitar freakout at the end, while seeming like it was beamed in from a different song, is powerful stuff.
3. “The Wall”- Springsteen has sort of told a similar Vietnam tale in several different songs, but he always finds new angles and the outrage never fades, nor should it. In trying to get into the narrator’s character, he maybe makes the vocal a bit more gnarly than it needs to be. Still, the lyrics are potent, skimping neither on the narrator’s sorrow at his friend’s absence nor his anger at those who were untouched by the war because of their privileged status. Nice touch with the “Taps”-like cornet at the end.
2. “Hunter Of Invisible Game”- Maybe I’m overinterpreting (perish the thought), but the title and some of the lyrics here seem like a metaphor for the songwriter’s quest, roaming the apocalyptic wasteland of the mind in search of fertile musical ground. OK, I’m definitely overinterpreting, but this is still an oddly stirring track, driven by that string riff that sounds like it’s on loan from a Randy Newman score. This is the one song on here that doesn’t sound vaguely reminiscent, either musically or lyrically, of something that Springsteen has done better before, and that uniqueness recommends it above all the other previously unheard stuff here.
1. “American Skin (41 Shots)”- While I’m of the opinion that Springsteen’s studio versions of his classic songs can go toe to toe with any live version you might find, this song inspired by the death of Amadou Diallo is an exception. While the song itself is so strong that even the somewhat muted version here packs a wallop, the super-intense take on Live In New York City seems definitive to me. Springsteen’s writing here is both fearless and measured somehow, nothing like the one-sided criticism that its detractors want it to be. He nails his main targets, which are the mistrust and fear that all our advances in race relations can’t seem to completely overcome.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives in June, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)