Sunday, 26 January 2014

Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes' - Album Review

Bruce Springsteen is one of the biggest names in rock music and a new album from such a legend is always an event. He has been remarkably consistent throughout his long career and has been an influence to many musicians who have followed after him. His 2012 album Wrecking Ball was extremely well received (as were pretty much all of his albums) and it was going to be hard to top that, at least commercially. So High Hopes, his eighteenth studio album, takes a slightly different path. This album sees Springsteen revisiting some of his old songs - both released and unreleased - as they "deserved a home and a hearing" as he says in his liner notes. Most of the songs here were written for previous albums that, for whatever reason, were not included or finished at the time. Sometimes songs, no matter how good they may be, just do not fit with the overall themes and sounds of the album and get left behind and often forgotten. It is good that Springsteen has gone back through some of his unreleased material as some of the songs here are real gems. There are also a couple of covers of songs that he likes and, prehaps most interestingly, some reworkings of old songs to give them a whole new feel. Given that this album is, on the surface, a collection of odds and ends; you would be forgiven for thinking that it might be patchy and the material might not sit well together as a collective body of work. Luckily, in my opinion at least, this is not the case. High Hopes feels like a complete album and if I was not aware of the songs' histories I would not ever guess that this was a collection of old songs. Like Wrecking Ball, this is not a pure E Street Band album. Many members of the E Street Band appear on all the songs but Springsteen also utilises the talents of many guest musicians, particularly Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine; Audioslave) which has been a big part of the way the album has been marketed. Morello's contributions are good, and he performs many of the album's guitar solos. He is more restrained here than on Rage Against the Machine's material but a few moments of weird guitar noise let you know it is him playing. The delux edition of the album also comes with a bonus DVD that features the entire Born in the U.S.A. album performed live in London last year. This is one of the reasons I pre-ordered the album from Amazon and is worth watching.

The album starts with the title track which is a cover of an old Tim Scott McConnell song that Springsteen initially released on the Blood Brothers EP in 1996. This is a new version however and features most of the E Street Band and Morello ripping through the song with ease. It has a slightly Caribbean feel, especially in the choruses, with extensive use of horns and tribal percussion. Springsteen's voice is as good as ever. He has not lost any of his power as he has grown older and his performances throughout this album are excellent. Harry's Place is the first of the older songs and is a dark, groovy little number that features the late Clarence Clemons on saxaphone. A pulsing bassline from Garry Tallent drives the song and Springsteen's unusal lyrics create an interesting and strange atmosphere. The subtle but key saxophone lines that really drive the gentle melodies hark back to classic E Street Band albums before Clemons' short solo takes the song to smokey jazz bar territory. A great song, one I am glad that Springsteen plucked from his vaults. American Skin (41 Shots) is another re-recording. A live version originally appeared on the Live in New York City album but a rare single track promo CD was also released with a studio version of the song around the same time. This is a new version though and it is great to finally have a definitive version of it. Charlie Giordano's swriling organ and some distant snare drum backs up Springsteen on the first verse before the band gradually builds up the song's sound over the rest of the song. The lyrics are very poignant and highlights Springteen's talent for making a serious point within a song. Morello's guitar solo here is fantastic. It really fits the mood of the song and does not go overboard with fretboard pyrotechnics. Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons, who now tours with Springsteen, gets a short saxophone solo. It is nice to see things are being kept in the family! Just Like Fire Would is another cover, originally by Australian rockers The Saints. Ironically, this is probably the most traditionally E Street Band-sounding song since Radio Nowhere on 2007's Magic. Roy Bittan's trademark piano cuts through the sound like the days of old the big, anthemic chorus is classic Springsteen. Stevie Van Zandt's nasally backing vocals can be heard throughout which is another thing that makes it sound like a classic E Street Band number.

The next highlight is the upbeat and rocking Heaven's Wall. It has a similar feel to the album's title track but with a more anthemic chorus. There is nothing fancy about this song, it just rocks and would go down a storm live as all the crowd could get involved in the chorus. Frankie Fell in Love is another fun little song. Again, this is another very traditional Springsteen song that would have fit on any of his early albums. Van Zandt again helps out with the vocals and it makes you realise how key his backing vocals are to that E Street Band sound. That sound continues on with This is Your Sword but it has slightly folky overtones with use of uilleann pipes and whistles. Again, it is uncomplicated but is a catchy little song that all the hallmarks of Springsteen's songwriting. The next highlight is the new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad. Originally the title track of Springsteen's 1995 acoustic album, here it is reimagined with a full band arrangement similar to the one played live on the Wrecking Ball tour. Morello is featured heavily on this song, sharing vocals with Springsteen and playing a great solo mid-way through the song. I am not really a huge fan of the sparse original version, but this one really rocks; I love it! Bittan's paino and Soozie Tyrell's violin help to give the song those E Street Band hallmarks, but Springsteen and Morello steal the show with their passionate singing and stellar guitar work. This song is probably the highlight of the album and I am glad that Springsteen decided to revisit it and fulfil it's potential with this new arrangement. The Wall is a very mellow and reflective song that gives you a break after the epic and draining previous one. It is another old song recorded a while ago as it features another late E Street Band member Danny Federici on organ. Stylistically, it reminds me of the ending of Jungleland with added folk courtesy of some delicate accordian and solitory coronet. The album comes to an end with another understated number, a cover of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream which rounds out the album nicely. It fails to live up to the strength of the previous couple of songs but it still sounds nice and it is a fitting closing number. Overall, this is another really strong collection of songs from one of the biggest giants in the music industry. It might not be an out and out classic like some of his previous albums, but there are more than enough great songs here to interest even the most casual of Springsteen fans. The new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad is worth buying the album for alone!

The album was released on 13th January 2014 via Columbia Records. Below is the promotional video for Just Like Fire Would.

No comments:

Post a Comment