A working class hero is something to be, but what happens when you are eventually there? Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album, High Hopes is an okay collection of covers, outtakes and retakes, twelve in total, that shows Springsteen churning out another release which seems the result of the lack of anything better to do while on tour around the world.
The Boss is a musician who thrives on playing live. This passion has seen the traditional cycle of creating an album and then touring it entirely reversed. The genesis of much of Bruce’s work now days can be as much as ten to fifteen years old and as life-long friend and band mate Steve Van Zandt claims, Bruce always has “at least one album in his pocket at any given time”. Perfecting and testing songs out on the road has become the birthplace for much of Bruce’s material and in some sense this is what is allowing to this 64-year old giant of rock music to keep himself productive.
Yet, in terms of staying relevant with regard to one’s releases, it’s particularly hard to imagine how to retain this relevance when you’re releasing an album in 2014 criticising the Bush administration (see ‘Harry’s Place’). In the early stages of his career he made a point of avoiding overt political association, of late however we’ve seen Springsteen become a major asset to the Obama campaign both for election in 2008 and re-election in 2012. Therefore, if it were relevance he was going for a critical edge to his new material would perhaps offer a new opportunity of rejuvenation. Writing anthems about struggling through the economic recession, job shortages and dealing with a Legislature and Executive at loggerheads at the expense of the very people he represents seem all too obvious theme choices for such a blue-collared hero, and yet High Hopes lacks any of this fresh impetus.
Much of this album is fairly safe and is unlikely to be the kind of stuff that converts new listeners. A track such as ‘This is Your Sword’ for instance is self-indulgent to the -nth degree with Springsteen soaking sentimentality in the finest Irish single malt. In fact, the track is likely to be a hit on Irish drinking song compilations, going down a storm on his beloved East coast of the US of A.
Bearing his fans in mind however has lead to perhaps the biggest perk of High Hopes: the presence of Rage Against the Machine! guitarist, Tom Morello, who’d stepped in for Van Zandt on the Aussie leg of the Wrecking Ball Tour last year. In conversation with Rolling Stone, Springsteen spoke of the first time he brought Morello on stage:
I can remember, it was in Los Angeles, and he came up and played the “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the place exploded in probably one of the loudest crowd responses I’ve heard in all the years we’ve been playing. It was just like something explosive happened.
And thankfully Morello’s explosive presence has been carried over onto the much of the album. Morello features on 8 tracks of which ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ is a contender for song of the album.
Having been written as a rock song for Bruce and the E Street Band to play, it initially didn’t work out as such. Bruce then adapted it into an acoustic song, and owing to its success, demanded Bruce and the E Street band begin working it out – and work it out they did. Having been played live for roughly a decade or so, its appearance on High Hopes is one long overdue. Morello’s guitar work breathes an almost teenage veracity into the track, adding a fresh dimension to the traditional Springsteen sound. With his signature wah-wah pedal work, whenever Morello appears on the album his presence is felt instantaneously.
It does however offer a stark contrast. Morello is a beacon of counter-culture and rebellion, while Springsteen, an activist in some sense, appears in need of an injection of fresh energy to make sure he doesn’t fossilise. What’s puzzling is that it seems that Morello sadly seems all right with that, offering Springsteen the cameo needed to make this album stand out just enough to justify it as a release and not just a collection of misfit tracks. Perhaps Morello’s blinded by the bright lights and prestige associated with a man like Springsteen.
High Hopes is an album that can’t be said to be anything revolutionary or life-changing, much of its sound is what one would expect from him: a collection of classic Rock ’n Roll by a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inductee, where some tracks outshine much of the rest. Allowing his legion of die-hard life-long fans to be the ultimate deciders in what works or not is a pretty failsafe method if one considers the dark cavernous abyss the 90s were for Springsteen’s career. This does leave one thinking this album is merely one to bide time and to offer more live material – not that he really needs it. But that’s one thing you can never take away from The Boss – at 64, he doesn’t have to be doing any of this anymore, but he does ’cause he loves it and it shows.