Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes (Album review 2014)

Revisiting old material isn't always easy, but if anyone can pull it off, it's The Boss. Given that in recent years, Bruce Springsteen has lost two of his closest friends and long-serving members of The E Street Band: Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, it's fitting that he should give them one final walk on stage (they each appear on two songs and together on one). High Hopes comprises many reworks, two covers and studio recordings of tour favourites, with the former Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello (who toured as part of The E Street Band in 2008/9) instrumental (pun intended) in bringing this album to life. His presence and skill is (almost) ever-present.

To say this doesn't feel like a proper Springsteen album would be wrong; if you didn't know High Hopes is a collection of covers, re-recordings and 'rejects', most wouldn't know or case. Obviously even a passing fan would pick up on The Ghost Of Tom Joad but as a cohesive work, it stands alone. Not all albums have a strong narrative and a central 'story' and the last few Springsteen albums (Wrecking Ball and Magic most notably) are good examples. The title track (originally from the Blood Brothers EP - and not written by Springsteen), complete with brass flashes and odd arrangement, is a solid, attention-grabbing opener, followed by The Rising cut Harry's Place, a song better than half of those that made the album. This is a running theme in the world of The Promise shows.

The two covers on High Hopes almost steal the album. Just Like Fire Would, originally by The Saints, is wonderfully faithful to the original but sounds very 'Springsteen', with added organ, denser guitar work and, of course, the trademark rasping vocals. And Suicide's cold, stark Dream Baby Dream is given a warmer interpretation with softer keyboards, stronger vocals and a fuller sound. A brilliant reworking. To complement this, Hunter Of Invisible Game wouldn't be out of place on the marvellous Devils & Dust, perfectly produced with delicate strings and guitars, Springsteen on top vocal form delivering his poetry. But the two stand-out moments have to be twin seven minute epics of American Skin (41 Shots), brilliantly recorded to capture the spirit of the live recording, and the legendary masterpiece The Ghost Of Tom Joad, complete with Morello's manic impossible guitars filling out the second half.

High Hopes is far from ground-breaking and not beyond criticism - after all if you are one of the most famous musicians in the world you better live up to it... and even here, Bruce Springsteen can make an album that is engaging and warm. It's not all good news as songs like the obvious Heaven's Wall, the hapless Frankie Fell In Love and the Celtic-infused This Is Your Sword drag the middle of High Hopes down but the gorgeous balladry of The Wall is another understated gem - Springsteen at his best when he just tells a story, plain and simple; especially poignant when it's a story close to your heart. The trumpet solo to finish and organ from the late Federici, are breathtaking. This album is more a labour of love than a statement of intent.
-- CS

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