SPRINGSTEEN HIGH HOPESBorn of frustration with the bankers he blames for America’s myriad ills, WRECKING BALL was vintage blue-collar Bruce, a fierce re-engagement with form after the relative mid-life mediocrities of 2007’s MAGIC and WORKING ON A DREAM (2009). HIGH HOPES – Springsteen’s 18th studio album – continues in similarly energised style, though rounds up, reworks or finishes off an eclectic mix of outtakes, off-cuts and oddities (“some of the best unreleased material”) accrued over the last two decades or so.
The title track is a freshened-up and fattened-out run through the 1990 single by The Havalinas, first covered by Springsteen on the BLOOD BROTHERS EP in 1995. Despite being reminiscent of some material on WRECKING BALL (socially conscious lyrics reflecting on a tough world where, for the majority, there is no option than to earn everything the hard way) it has a much more optimistic tone. It’s feasible Springsteen has worked off a little of the anger which threatened to engulf him on that album and can, instead, look forward through the gloom.

Soon after, though, HIGH HOPES hits temporary murk – despite the presence of Clarence Clemons. HARRY’S PLACE (a cast-off originally bumped from THE RISING in 2002) ought to offer poignant reminder of the saxophonist’s greatness and a tasteful nod to his passing in 2011, but the Big Man’s soulful soar is pitched into battle with Tom Morello’s up-to-eleven guitar. It is a fight Clemons loses, ultimately half-buried somewhere in the digitally compressed mix.
The former Rage Against The Machine guitarist’s influence is evident across most of HIGH HOPES, and Springsteen has talked about how important Morello was to reinvigorating operations when filling in for an absent-due-to-acting Steve Van Zandt during the Australian leg of the WRECKING BALL tour. The new collaboration is most apparent on a reimagined version of live favourite THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD, transformed from ballad to blazing anthem, merging Springsteen’s dustbowl campfire story with Rage Against the Machine’s headline-bombast cover version of 2000. It’s surprisingly effective – though Springsteen is no stranger to alt-rock, having covered The Clash in concert in recent times and, here, offering decent stabs at JUST LIKE FIRE WOULD by The Saints and Suicide’s DREAM BABY DREAM.

The brooding pulse of AMERICAN SKIN (41 SHOTS), written in the aftermath of the controversial police shooting death of immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York during 1999, is HIGH HOPES’ intense centre. The song strives to see both sides, veering between numbed and excoriating – just as it did on its only previous official outing (2001’s LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY collection).
In all but actual sequencing, penultimate track THE WALL is the new album’s true closer. Inspired by a visit to the Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, it tells of musician friends who were shipped off to fight in Vietnam but did not return, and serves as reminder of Springsteen’s innate ability to transmit wider political views through a ‘down home’ story. Understated organ by E-Street Band member Danny Federici, who died in 2008, reinforces a simple nobility.

Two years have passed since WRECKING BALL crashed into view. Yet, in typically thorough fashion, Springsteen’s accompanying world tour is geared up to continue thundering down roads into this coming March. Consequently, any album issued while on such a mammoth globe-trot was always likely to have an air of being a stop-gap.
“The best way to describe the record is that’s its a bit of an anomaly – but not much,” Springsteen has said. “I don’t really work linearly, like a lot of people do”… Though HIGH HOPES’ assortment of covers, reworked material and studio runs at songs favoured in the live arena will satisfy those hungry for any new addition to the discography, and despite containing one or two genuinely essential moments, it may leave some with the lingering aftertaste of a curate’s egg.

{ additional material from DW }