Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (Columbia) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Bruce Springsteen

High Hopes

Columbia

Jan 16, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


As a live performer, Bruce Springsteen has been burning down the road for the last 40 years, and judging by the fact that he played the longest show of his career in 2012, it appears that he still has a lot of gas left in the tank. As a songwriter and recording artist, however, he's running on reserves. Springsteen's latest studio album, High Hopes, being promoted as his 18th officially, is a mixed bag of covers, re-workings of songs that have appeared elsewhere, and previously unreleased material written for other projects. With some of the tracks, there's even overlap among these divisions.

It's a curious move for an artist who's been fastidious about sequencing and thematic structure throughout the decades. Springsteen's prior album, 2012's Wrecking Ball, worked wonderfully in both regards, yet there were signs of trouble, one being the inclusion of a newly recorded studio version of "Land of Hope and Dreams," a song that featured prominently on his 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band and was released as a live recording in 2001. During the lead-up to Wrecking Ball's release, Springsteen told a press corps in Paris that he needed a big, spiritual song for the album. He explained: "'Land of Hope and Dreams' was a song of such size and spiritual dimension that by the time the end of the record came around, it fit really well." What he didn't reveal is whether he attempted to write a song that fulfilled that need. Given that Wrecking Ball was Springsteen's first album since the death of E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons, and that producer Ron Aniello managed to include Clemons on the studio version of "Land of Hope and Dreams" by inserting his sax parts from a live recording, the move could pass for a tribute.

Far more disconcerting is how High Hopes was built. According to the liner notes written by Springsteen, he had been working on an album of unreleased material from the last decade when Tom Morello, preparing to fill in for E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt on the Australian leg of the 2013 tour, suggested that The Havalinas' "High Hopes" be added to the live set. Springsteen had recorded a cover of the song with the E Street Band in 1995, and it was released on a limited EP in 1996. Morello told Rolling Stone that he got the idea after hearing Springsteen's recording on E Street Radio, a Sirius satellite channel. Springsteen acted on Morello's suggestion, and the song, now featuring hot-wired guitar solos by Morello and New Orleans-accented brass, was performed on the tour. This story begs at least two big questions. First, what kind of album would Springsteen have crafted had E Street Radio's programmer not altered its fate? Second, why does Tom Morello, whose name appears after the titles of seven songs, have so much influence?

Of High Hopes' 12 tracks, only seven (not the same Morello seven) would qualify as previously unreleased Springsteen material. That count doesn't include "American Skin (41 Shots)," another song that, like "Land of Hope and Dreams," debuted on the reunion tour and was released as a live version in 2001, although never as studio recording. Whatever album Springsteen was making when he got Morello's text, apparently it didn't have a strong title track. Maybe it's best that Springsteen turned to a cover to open this album. Whereas some of his classic songs from the '70s borrowed from Roy Orbison, The Animals, and The Crystals, the opening tracks on his three previous albums drew less favorable comparisons to Tommy Tutone, KISS, and Flock of Seagulls.

The best among High Hopes' batch of previously unreleased songs is "Down in the Hole," a dreamy and melancholy mid-tempo track that was written for 2002's The Rising. A reason why it was left off The Rising could have been that, lyrically, it reiterates some of the other 9/11-themed songs on that album. Another possibility is that its beat and synth backing bears similarity to Born in the U.S.A.'s "I'm on Fire." Of late, Springsteen doesn't seem to mind releasing amalgams of his older songsadd High Hopes' upbeat rocker, "Frankie Fell in Love," to a list that also includes "Livin' in the Future," "Easy Money," and "Rocky Ground"but this might have been more of an issue in 2002, for his first album with The E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A.

For The Rising, Springsteen relinquished production duties for the first time since 1973, enlisting Brendan O'Brien, who both expanded the band's palette and steered it down other stylistic avenues. Springsteen's instinct was correct, if a decade too late. With his two 1992 albums, he had trouble finding a sonic balance between polished (Human Touch) and flat (Lucky Town). The problem became evident again when he brought the E Street Band into the studio in 2001 to record "American Skin (41 shots)," a mournful and powerful song inspired by the shooting and killing of 23-year-old immigrant Amadou Diallo, at the hands of New York City police in 1999. The 2001 studio cut of the song was released to some radio stations, but it lacked the electricity of the live performances, one of which appeared on Springsteen and The E Street Band's Live in New York City album the same year.

The song was revived on the Wrecking Ball tour in the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing. Springsteen and the band took another crack at it in the studio for High Hopes, this time with Aniello's production help and Morello on lead guitar, but again, the studio cut falls short of the live version. It begins with a faint hip-hop beata decent embellishmentbut the quiet voices of various band members repeating "41 shots" have been replaced by Springsteen singing the same words through a distorted filter, making the lyric entirely unintelligible. Morello's rhythm guitar adds some welcome texture to the recording, but his lead work is problematic, oftentimes sounding like Steve Stevens' contributions to the Top Gun score. And the addition of horns gives the song a triumphant aura that's as ill-fitting as the jacket Springsteen wears on the High Hopes album cover.

There's a succession of either head-scratching or incongruous sounds on High Hopes. "Harry's Place," a descriptive account of the shady dealings and power of a mob kingpin, has a combination of funky guitar effects (thanks to Morello) and thumping synths that would have worked well for Miami Vice or Lethal Weapon. The gently waltzing "Hunter of Invisible Game," another of the album's strong originals, marries apocalyptic scenery with a reassuring, poetic sentiment. Its prominent strings, though, fall somewhere between Terence Blanchard's movie scores and Max Steiner's "Mammy" theme from Gone With the Wind. A third gem is High Hopes' penultimate track, "The Wall," inspired by Springsteen's visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and his memories of fellow Jersey Shore rocker, Walter Cichon, who served in the war and was classified as MIA in 1968. Another of the quieter tracks, "The Wall" reintroduces the detailed storytelling that's been absent from much of Springsteen's work since 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad. Its nagging drawback is a recurring riff that recalls Sting's "Fields of Gold." The pipes and whistle of the Celtic-tinged "This Is Your Sword" also evoke Sting, who toured with Springsteen in 1988 for Amnesty International's Human Rights Now! concerts. For those shows, Springsteen performed Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom," a song to which "This Is Your Sword" has some musical affinity by way of The Byrds.

The high-point of the album is the one-two punch of "Just Like Fire Would" and "Down in the Hole." Written by Chris J. Bailey of Australia's The Saints, "Just Like Fire Would" was released as a single by the band in the late '80s. Springsteen debuted his cover version last year in Brisbane, his first performance in Australia in a decade. Aniello drops the ball during the first 15 seconds of the studio recording, where it seems that it might instead be a cover of John Mellencamp's "Small Town." But, after that, the track takes off, Springsteen's twang-free vocal channeling his robust singing from the River era. The band feels totally engaged, with guitarist Steve Van Zandt's distinct backing vocals echoing and drummer Max Weinberg freely inserting rolls and crashing symbols. The arrangementstrings and a piccolo trumpet solo, a la "Penny Lane," in place of the traditional Clemons sax solois probably too sweet, as Bailey's lyrics cry of disenfranchisement, but the energy of Springsteen and the band gives the song a spirited sense of defiance. The band rarely has sounded this lively in the studio since Born in the U.S.A. Has Springsteen become too controlling with his own songs to inspire a studio performance like this from the band? Or is this a breakthrough, a harbinger of good things still to come? Either way, Springsteen gets points for this winning cover.  

With the exception of the 2006 folk tribute collection, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, High Hopes is the first Springsteen studio album to include songs credited solely to other songwriters. High Hopes has three such songs: the title track, written by The Havalinas' Tim Scott McConnell; Bailey's "Just Like Fire Would;" and "Dream Baby Dream," by Suicide's Martin Rev and Alan Vega. It's strange that a cover song that Springsteen seemingly had forgottenhe'd never performed "High Hopes" live prior to 2013suddenly would assert itself as a title track for a studio album. A cynical mind would wonder if High Hopes is just a rushed product to fulfill contract obligations with the label, or an excuse for lucrative touringor both.

Even stranger is the notoriously hard-headed Springteen's amenability to Morello. Van Zandt, who joined the E Street Band in 1975 and whose friendship with Springsteen dates back even earlier, can't seem to get some of his favorite songs into the show setlist. In 2009, Springsteen told a Stockholm audience that Van Zandt is always begging for him to play "Fade Away," a perfect pop ballad from The River that actually reached Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1981. Springsteen complied that night in Stockholm but has played "Fade Away" only twice since then, a paltry 19 times ever with the band. Another Van Zandt favorite is "Restless Nights," an outtake from The River that kicks off the second disc of Springsteen's 1998 archival box set, Tracks. The wistful garage rocker features a fierce organ solo from E Street's Danny Federici. Springsteen has performed the song only once live, on Van Zandt's birthday in 2009. Federici, who died in 2008, never played the song with Springsteen. Yet, Morello, Van Zandt's temporary substitute, texts a suggestion to Springsteen and, next thing you know, the song is not only in the setlist but also becomes the title track for the new album.

This year, The E Street Band will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Award for Musical Excellence. And yet, The E Street Band never has been singled out with a featuring credit on a Springsteen studio album the way Morello has on High Hopes. As Cracked humorously pointed out in 2012, LaBamba from Conan O'Brien's band has appeared on more Springsteen album covers than Weinberg, E Street's drummer since 1975. For 16 years, Weinberg also was bandleader for O'Brien's Late-Night show on NBC, as well the few months that O'Brien hosted The Tonight Show. According to IMDb, Van Zandt appeared in all 86 episodes of The Sopranos, and currently he plays the lead character in the Netflix series, Lilyhammer, which has been picked up for a third season. Yet Tom Morello's name is somehow more important and deserves to be singled out? What about Roy Bittan, whose piano playing is an indelible part of the Born to Run album? Or bassist Garry Tallent, who's served more years in The E Street Band than anyone?

In 1997, Rage Against the Machine began covering Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the title song from his stark, acoustic album released in 1995. It made sense that Rage would gravitate to the sympathies in Springsteen's writing for that album, one that is populated by downcast stories of laid-off workers, exploited immigrants, parolees and scarred Vietnam vets. Morello is a professed longtime fan, and he attended at least one of Springsteen's shows on the solo tour for The Ghost of Tom Joad. Rage's cover of the song was barely recognizable, draining all the melody out of it, but it gave Springsteen some sorely needed cred from the younger generation of musicians.

In 1992, when Springsteen re-emerged from a four-year hiatus with the Human Touch and Lucky Town albumsbut without The E Street Band, which had been given walking papers three years earlierthe rock landscape had shifted toward grunge, and the 42-year-old, seen doing shirtless windmills in the "Human Touch" video, now was perceived as a dad rocker of less relevance. The albums dropped down the charts quickly, and Springsteen attempted to slow the sinking by appearing on SNL for his first live television performance. Rage Against the Machine's debut album was released later that year, and while Springsteen was opening his shows singing "these are better days" in the wake of the L.A. riots, Rage was addressing racism and police brutality in songs such as "Killing in the Name," leading mosh pits in chants of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"

Springsteen watched as his friend, Neil Young, who'd released a string of excellent albums from 1989 to 1995, was embraced by the younger generation of rockers and bestowed with the title of godfather of grunge. Young's 1995 album, Mirror Ball, was recorded with Pearl Jam, the best-selling rock band of the mid-'90s. One of the links between Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam circa 1996 was producer Brendan O'Brien. He was on board for Mirror Ball as well.

Though Springsteen's arena tour without the E Street Band was a box office success, he returned to socially conscious writing after the lukewarm reception to his personal, love-themed 1992 albums. The Ghost of Tom Joad and the Oscar-nominated "Dead Man Walkin'" arrived on the heels of his Academy Award and Grammy wins for 1993's "Streets of Philadelphia." In between, there was a brief 1995 reunion with the E Street Band to record new tracks for a greatest hits collection. Those sessions produced "Secret Garden," which cracked the Top 20 on the Hot 100 after appearing in the 1996 hit film, Jerry Maguire. The '90s were by no means a scratch for Springsteen. In addition to the aforementioned honors, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Most artists would envy a decade like Springsteen's '90s, but it saw him transition from superstar to legend. Translation: his best years were behind him. Also, he no longer was the prolific songwriter that he used to be. It would be seven years between The Ghost of Tom Joad and its follow-up, The Rising.

Morello joined Springsteen and the E Street Band onstage for the first time in 2008, in Anaheim, to perform a rock version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." In that performance, the song took on a stomping style reminiscent of Crazy Horse, and, unlike Rage's version, was faithful to Springsteen's melody. Morello was given extended room to solo and inject his trademark siren-like effects and turntable scratches, escalating the onstage intensity to a boil. Springsteen has brought the house down countless times in his career with electric showstoppers, but what stirred the buzz in the arena and made this performance especially memorable was the surprise factor. Who saw it coming? Who'd think it could work? Morello returned the next night in Anaheim to reprise the performance and has done so sporadically in recent years. A live recording of the song from the first night in Anaheim was officially released on audio and video a few months later. Still, Springsteen felt that this arrangement deserved a studio recording.

The version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" that appears on High Hopes is virtually the same in arrangement as the live performances with Morello. Without the context of a concert setting, however, or at least a memory of seeing it live, the song might seem overblown here. Morello's soloing at one point ascends into space-prog territory, and it's unclear whether that's one of his effects or Aniello's touch. Still, much of the power of the original song, as well as its live incarnation with Morello, is retained. If it has a weakness, it might be Springsteen singing in a gruff, chest-bumping twang that, again, can be unintelligible at first.

He's in much better voice on High Hopes closer "Dream Baby Dream," a song that ended some of his Devils & Dust solo tour shows in 2005. Alan Vega's vocal on Suicide's minimal, original 1979 recording echoes Roy Orbison, and that might have been a draw for Springsteen, who adds lyrics such as, "Come on and open up your heart," and "I just want to see you smile." In this instance, less of the original's character is preserved in favor of sentimentality. Again, these things play better in the realm of a concert setting, where spontaneity and improvisation are encouraged.         

Springsteen recently explained in an interview that "formally defined" studio versions of these live staples give them authority that otherwise might be lost. It's an interesting thought to consider, but what if the formally defined versions are inferior to the live recordings? This conflict has plagued Springsteen since the '70s. Only 1980's The River, incidentally an album in which Van Zandt had palpable influence, showcased the versatility of the E Street Band and the dynamism of the live show. Springsteen has a Hall of Fame band at his disposal, but, perhaps still haunted by his irrelevance as a rocker while working without E Street in the early '90s, he's become fixated with Morello, who appeared on two Wrecking Ball tracks as well.

It would be great to see Springsteen write and record new material that allowed the band members to flourish the way they did on The River. This is not to say that he should record another album that sounds like The River. The E Street Band's talent extends beyond that sound, but aside from Federici's organ outro on The Rising's "You're Missing," the instrumental highlights from the individual musicians have been few and far between since Nils Lofgren's guitar solo on 1987's "Tunnel of Love." Either Springsteen is not giving them the opportunities, or they're not offering ideas, instead content to ride Springsteen's coattails and count the touring dollars. Whatever the case, Morello has fast-tracked to the front of the line. But his aesthetic remains tied to the '90s, leaving Springsteen in a creative predicament similar to the one he faced that decade. The difference now is that Springsteen no longer carries the weight of sales expectations that pop superstars do. Maybe this is one of several reasons why he's been far more productive over the past dozen years, at least in terms of album releases.

Sound-picture is the term Springsteen has been dropping as of late when describing what he's trying to achieve with Morello. It implies creating a cinematic landscape through the music. But this was not an issue for Springsteen on his classic albums the way that capturing the live feel was. The band helped him to render fantastic sound-pictures, and he can do it again without Morello. It's encouraging to see Springsteen experimenting with studio tools such as drum loops, samples, and sonic effects. Sometimes he catches lightning in a bottle, as with Wrecking Ball's "Death to My Hometown." But he's playing catch-up, and these tools are not his forte.

In the 2005 Born to Run making-of documentary, Wings for Wheels, Springsteen explained that, after placing layer upon layer of sounds onto that album's tracks, he then began to strip away to find the right density. He continued to strip away for the next 20 years, arriving at the bare-bones The Ghost of Tom Joad. The challenge since then has been finding his way back to the right density in his rock records. He seemed to be on track with 2007's Magic, produced by O'Brien, and Aniello's input with Wrecking Ball yielded unexpected successes, but High Hopes has too many distractions to rank with those albums. Aside from Morello's overdubs and the other tweaks to familiar songs, there's Springsteen's wildly inconsistent vocals, from the early '90s twang of "Frankie Fell in Love" to the low mumbling in the gospel rocker, "Heaven's Wall," one track where Morello's contributions actually feel indispensable.

It's tempting to speculate which producers out there now could get better results from Springsteen. T Bone Burnett? Rick Rubin? John Agnello? John Congleton? How about Björn Yttling, who fooled music writers into calling Lykke Li an electro-pop artist when the instrumentation on her first two albums was either acoustic or rock-based?

More importantly, does Springsteen the songwriter have another great rock record in him, or is he running on empty? With that, go to Spotify and try to find the studio recording of Jackson Browne's classic, "Running on Empty," the one that's given the song authority over the last 36 years. (www.brucespringsteen.net)

Author rating: 6/10

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