Perhaps one mark of an iconic musical artist is when even the leftovers can come together to make a good record. As Bruce Springsteen’s long-awaited hodgepodge album High Hopes drops this week, fans are likely to be surprised at how well the album ties together the loose ends of the previous decade of the Boss’s career.
Of course, Springsteen openly admits he had a little help with this one. Guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine fame) subbed for Steve Van Zandt during the Australian leg of last year’s Wrecking Ball Tour, and somehow ended up a collaborator in putting High Hopes together. However that worked, the end result, um, works. The album presents a remarkable amount of cohesion despite its piecemeal approach—a collection of reworked established tracks from the catalog, covers and unrecorded originals from the E-Street Band’s live shows over the years, peppered with shelved tunes from earlier recordings that have been dusted off and reworked. The end result is that this album of leftovers plays far more like the main course than you’d think possible.
Among the album’s numerous high points, the standout by a mile is “American Skin (41 Shots),” which Boss fans will know well. Written as an answer to the tragic shooting of Amadou Diallo in 2000 by NYC police after mistaking his wallet for a gun, and performed regularly on tour since its Madison Square Garden this seven-and-a-half minute track is loaded with as much passion, pathos and defiance as when it first saw the light of day, and it should have shown up on an album a long time ago. It’s well worth the wait. Other noteworthy moments include the Morello-Springsteen version of 1995’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which has dominated set lists in this form since 2008; “The Wall,” a Dylan-esque acoustic tribute to Jersey friends who never returned from Vietnam; “Harry’s Place,” an understated bluesy track left over from The Rising recording sessions; and the title track, reworked from its rockabilly roots with tasty horns and an inescapably contagious groove.
For that matter, the only track I felt truly comes off like a “B-side” on the album is “Heaven’s Wall,” a song destined for a gospel record that never manifested. The gospel feel and Biblical references aren’t necessarily out of place here, but the song itself seems to lack direction compared to the other tracks, and therefore detracts a bit from the energy of the rest of the record. It’s the album’s only misstep, in my opinion, and should either have been worked a little more or just left off the list.
Overall, though, it still says a lot when an artist like Bruce Springsteen can find enough scraps from his musical table to put together a brand new feast. High Hopes is laden with the energy, vibe, and stellar musicality that first made the E-Street Band a household name, and listening to this record will only make fans hungry to go see Springsteen perform live once again. Those who had “high hopes” for this record won’t be disappointed.
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