About a month back I read a blurb that Bruce Springsteen was going to release an album of songs from sessions done on the Australian leg of the 2013 tour. Steve Van Zandt would not be on the tour (or sessions) due to his commitment to his fun TV series set in Norway, Lillehammer. Taking Steve's place would be Tom Morello from the group, Rage Against the Machine. It's obvious that Bruce had something on his mind to do some recording in the middle of another world tour.
I received the finished project the week before Christmas and had been waiting for the release (January 14) to publish this piece. Thanks to a snafu at Amazon, it was unintentionally released early. Now that the cat's out of the bag, I can now give my impressions of High Hopes, the latest release from Bruce Springsteen.
To his credit, to be 65 and still creating, playing and touring is a feat all in itself. Bruce has a muse that does not stop instilling in him the motivation to write, create and perform. I've read that to be truly great you have to NEED to make it. Wanting to make it is not enough. If there is one thing Springsteen has proven in his half century of playing, it's that he has such a need and he needs to write, play and perform as you and I need to breathe.
When I first heard "High Hopes," it didn't seem to be anything special. I was hoping that Bruce was going into new territory. What High Hopes does show that Springsteen's character driven songs are without peer. Those songs unravel like screen plays they are so vivid.
I listened to High Hopes a number of times track by track but I'm more enthused about the music when the album is played on shuffle. Speaking of shuffle, is there an algorithm placed in the mix? There seems to be a predisposition for the album to play "41 Shots" and the "Ghost of Tom Joad" a lot.
While they are slightly improved with the extra production, did we need another rendition of "41 Shots?" You just got through playing it a bunch of times on the last tour so what was the need, where is the relevance? Then we get a repeat from the RRHOF 25th Anniversary with Tom Morello.That version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is not so unknown that you had to record it again. You have heard of You Tube, right? Besides, if you're so enamored with that kind of sound, just turn to your right and say, "Take it away, Nils!"
The Morello Experiment tells me that it was interesting territory that Springsteen wanted to explore. The processed vocals on 41 Shots, Harry's Place and Down in the Hole seemed like something Springsteen wanted to expand on. Then, on "Down in the Hole," Springsteen starts off with that sound, referring back to the two other songs but at the 1:41 mark, in mid-verse, he abandons it. I applaud the attempt but if you're going to try something new, then go balls out for it. Or, if you want to re-do older songs, then do them differently, change the melody, mix-up or freshen some lyrics. What do you have to lose? Dylan stays pretty fresh by doing that exact thing.
"Heaven's Wall" comes across like another Springsteen song that sounds weak on record but when you hear them live they become crowd favorite sing-alongs. "Working on a Dream" comes to mind. Here is the main take I come away from my experience with High Hopes. Springsteen, in the beginning of his career wrote his music for the album experience and then would expand those songs on stage, show by show. I think that Springsteen is now writing for the stage and then trying to fit them on a CD as best he can. Since the Rising, (excluding Devils & Dust and the Seeger Sessions) this has been his direction. Truthfully, he has only failed with this process once. The incredible restlessness that the audience would show during "Outlaw Pete."
A good friend of mine, Sal Nunziato, said that he wanted to hate the record because he had such low expectations for it. "So maybe this is why I really like "High Hopes," he wrote. "I expected not to. The biggest surprise is how wonderfully cohesive the record is. It plays beautifully, and not at all like some Frankenstein audio monster assembled and stitched from tossed off parts."
To be honest, I have never anticipated a Springsteen release since he followed up a masterpiece (Tunnel of Love, IMHO) with the schizoid Human Touch / Lucky Town experiment. I was curious as to what was on his mind this time. It would seem that we will not know the songs from High Hopes that Springsteen feels will fit his concept until his next tour.
To me, Springsteen is like the bar you have gone to for fifty years. Sure, you know the place inside and out, know the regulars and have your favorite seat. Yet, you continue to go back for refreshment because you never know, for sure, what to expect.