Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes

Between 2002 and 2012, Bruce Springsteen released five full-length studio albums, each completely different from the one that had come before it. In 2002, he resurrected the E Street Band for The Rising, a stirring eulogy for those who had lost their lives in the 9/11 tragedies. In 2004, he stripped his arrangements back to the lush, acoustic folk of Devils & Dust, an album that addressed everything from the futility of the Iraq war to the plight of the modern immigrant. In 2005, he threw a major curveball, bringing together an old-time folk band and re-arranging a slew of public domain songbook classics for the celebratory Seeger Sessions. In 2007, he reassembled the E Street Band once more for Magic, a potent and musically nostalgic burst of anger, dissatisfaction, and conflict at the political state of the country. With 2009’s Working on a Dream, he was uncharacteristically content, employing Phil Spector’s legendary “Wall of Sound” production technique on a set of bright and happy rock songs. And in 2012, the anger and dissolution had returned in the form of protest rock on Wrecking Ball, an astounding collection of songs that simultaneously struggled to find hope in America’s second Great Depression and fought to give a reason for Bruce to carry on after the loss of Clarence Clemons, E Street’s greatest contributor.

Those five disparate records would alone be enough to make the 2002-2012 run a strong contender for the most productive and prolific decade of Springsteen’s career. And Bruce has always been prolific. He’s one of those guys who never stops writing songs and never stops looking for themes to explore in his music. But since the new millennium started, the Boss has seemed hell-bent on giving his fans as much material as possible. Between 2002 and 2012, interspersed with his five studio records, Bruce released three live albums (Hammersmith Odeon London '75, Live in Dublin, and London Calling), numerous Greatest Hits packages, and full-scale reissues of both Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The latter even included a sprawling two-disc collection called The Promise, which meticulously culled all of the B-sides, outtakes, and alternate versions that Springsteen and the E Street Band had written, recorded, and cut during the sessions for the legendary 1978 album. Add numerous marathon tours, faithful full-album concerts, and the single longest show Springsteen has ever played (a four-and-a-half hour, 38-song concert he presented to Helsinki on July 31, 2012), and it’s clear that the Boss is not slowing down or becoming less hungry with age.

So why was the 2002-2012 period such a fruitful time for Bruce Springsteen and why does this 64-year-old rocker seem to be immune to the effects of aging? For one thing, the Boss has learned to loosen up with age. Springsteen used to be almost the ultimate perfectionist, so much that the number of overdubs, takes, tweaks, and flourishes that went into Born to Run are industry legend. Since he reconvened the E Street Band, Bruce has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, and that’s because he figured out a way to sit back and enjoy the ride. That’s why his concerts continue to be communal experiences the like of which no one else in the music industry can muster. That’s why his recent albums have lost some of the lean concision of his older work. Where Bruce used to cling to notebooks full of songs for years because they weren’t good enough for his albums, he’s now decided that fans should have a chance to hear that material, and while such decisions lead to albums full of songs that probably just could have been B-sides (see Working on a Dream), it’s still a trend that has made Springsteen more lovable, present, and relevant in the post-millennial music scene than any of his 1970s or 1980s contemporaries.

Which brings me at last to the album I’m actually writing about in this review: High Hopes, Bruce’s latest release, and technically, the 18th entry in his storied discography. No one expected this album, at least not now. Let me explain: Wrecking Ball was the record that Springsteen fans needed in 2012. Not only was it the kind of late-career masterpiece that could reinvigorate Bruce’s fanbase after the disappointing Dream, it also got the E Street Band on the road at a time when their fans desperately needed a chance to commune with them. Clarence had passed away the year before. Fans were looking for ways to mourn him, finding solace in his powerful saxophone solos, from the tearful bursts of “Jungleland” to the gleeful pomp of “Born to Run.” But it wasn’t enough. Wrecking Ball not only gave Clarence the recorded eulogy he deserved, but it also sparked the tour that brought tens of thousands of people together each night to bid him a proper farewell. When Bruce bellowed “the Big Man joined the band” line from “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” during the show’s climactic moments, rasing his microphone to the sky in tribute to his fallen brother, many fans were hit by such a powerful wave of emotion that all they could do was stand there and take everything in. It was the sort of catharsis that remains with you long after the music has ended and the house lights have gone down.

In fact, the Wrecking Ball tour proved to be such a celebratory and invigorating time that Bruce wanted to capture a bit of its spirit on record. Inspired by guitarist Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave), who stepped into the E Street Band for the Australian leg of the tour, Bruce began pulling old songs out of the vault and adding them to his setlist. The first of those – and the spark of creation for High Hopes as a whole – was the title track, a cover of an obscure Havalinas song that the E Street Band had originally recorded back in the nineties for the (first) Greatest Hits collection. The song didn’t make the cut, eventually turning up on the Blood Brothers EP instead, but Morello sensed potential in it, and when Bruce saw his stand-in guitarist “burn the house down with it” in Australia, he glimpsed that potential too. The song, a rollicking, horn-blast number marked by Morello’s helicopter guitar style, was worlds different from the Irish-folk-inspired Wrecking Ball, but audiences loved it, and Bruce began wondering what other gems he had left collecting dust in his vault.

So began the creative process for High Hopes, which consists exclusively of covers, outtakes, re-recordings of old live tracks and B-sides, and other assorted “odds and ends.” From that description, it would be easy for Bruce to have classified High Hopes as a B-sides record in the vein of The Promise. However, as Springsteen cut this material on the road, booking studio time with the E Street Band between Australian shows, he realized that the songs were too good and the performances too vibrant to be relegated to B-side status. He saw A-list material here, and he wanted to give that material its proper due in the spotlight.

As a result of that desire, High Hopes will be known now and forevermore as Springsteen’s 18th studio record. It will also probably go down as his weirdest full-length album – or at very least, tied for that title with The Seeger Sessions. It’s not that the material is particularly risky: on the contrary, most of these songs were written for previous records, and traces of Bruce’s older music are all over the place on this record, from the haunting world music influence of The Rising (“Down in the Hole”) to the slow-burn folk of The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust (“The Wall”). Rather, it’s that High Hopes is neither really an outtakes collection (since most of the songs were recorded during the same sessions), nor a studio album in the sense of Springsteen’s previous work (since the songs all come from different musical places and address wildly different themes). It’s a whirlwind of a listen, but the dichotomy keeps things interesting.

Of course, many listeners and critics will use the album’s origin story as a reason to write it off. Already, dozens of reviews and essays have hit the web begging the question, “If these songs weren’t even good enough to make his albums, then why should we want to listen to them?” But the answer to that question is that it’s Springsteen: this is a guy who has always had way more great material than would fit on his studio records, a guy who relegated some of his best songs to B-side status (“The Promise,” “Take Em As They Come”) and gave away some of his most surefire hits (“Because The Night,” “Fire”) because he didn’t think they quite fit the thematic or sonic vision he had for certain albums. Put simply, an album of Bruce Springsteen B-sides deserves our ears quite as much as an album of a less accomplished artist’s A-sides.

High Hopes makes that point clear. There is no way a song as poetic and devastating as “The Wall” – written for a friend and mentor of Bruce’s who went missing in action during the Vietnam War – should remain unreleased, no way that something as potent and insightful as “American Skin (41 Shots)” should only exist as a live recording. The latter was a bona fide centerpiece on Springsteen’s last tour, a song originally written over a decade ago about the controversial, racially motivated shooting of Amadou Diallo, but one that gained a whole new life when Springsteen repurposed it in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. It’s the kind of societal injustice song that made Springsteen famous to begin with, addressing the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that many American police officers often adopt when driven by fear and discrimination. Here, marked by atmospheric production and a searing guitar solo from Tom Morello, the song finally takes its rightful place as a staple of Bruce’s recorded output.

Also given new life by this collection is “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the defining track from Bruce’s 1996 acoustic album of the same name. “Joad” was always a notable song, finding compelling inspiration in John Steinbeck’s seminal novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and using it to – in the words of author Jeffery B Symynkywicz – “give voice to the invisible and unheard, the destitute and disenfranchised.” As a full record, The Ghost of Tom Joad was too long, repetitive, and humorless. Where Nebraska had used its stripped-down conceit to build tension, The Ghost of Tom Joad felt like one dull dirge after another, regardless of the fact that there were numerous great songs (or songs that had the potential to be great) interspersed throughout the tracklist. Here, freed from its long-winded thesis of an album, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” feels renewed, bursting with explosive vocal harmonies and incendiary guitar work from Morello. It begs the question of what kind of album Joad may have been if it had been conceived as an electric, full-band record.

Even beyond its core tracks, High Hopes never lapses in enjoyable spirit. “Harry’s Place” takes us back to the gangster-infested territory of “Atlantic City,” reminiscent of both Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Rising in feel, mood, and sonic structure. “Frankie Fell in Love” rollicks along like one of the country-infused bar-band throwaways from The River, filtered through the massive Spector-ish production techniques of Working on a Dream. “This is Your Sword” and “Hunter of Invisible Game” carry a bit of the Irish-folk-inspired sound of both The Seeger Sessions and Wrecking Ball. Even “Heaven’s Wall,” the album’s most superfluous cut – and the closest Bruce has come in ages to sounding like his early nineties self in quite awhile – makes big strides thanks to Morello’s underbelly guitar work.

As for the covers – takes on songs by forgotten punk bands like the Saints and Suicide – they remind us of just how much Bruce can do with a song that isn’t his own. The first, “Just Like Fire Would,” is a live sing-along staple in the making, while the latter, “Dream Baby Dream,” is entrancing and organ-drenched, utilizing minimalism and repetition to lay the album to rest in satisfying fashion. It’s not Bruce’s best way to close a record, and High Hopes certainly won’t go down as his finest work. However, for a stopgap release that no one expected, assembled from outtakes, B-sides, and covers that all but the most ardent Bruce followers would call inessential, High Hopes is still a remarkably cohesive and consistent record, and serves as a wonderful way to kick off 2014.

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