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Bruce Springsteen, ‘High Hopes’ – Album Review

Columbia Records

‘High Hopes’ is Bruce Springsteen‘s most disjointed album, and purposely so. Pulled together from various outtakes, cover songs and re-recordings from the past two decades, Springsteen’s 18th album is looser and less structurally sound than anything he’s released since becoming a star in the mid ’70s. And without something more sturdy to hang his music and lyrics on, ‘High Hopes’ is somewhat aimless.

Not that there aren’t some strong songs scattered among the occasionally flimsy frames holding ‘High Hopes’ together. But chances are, you’re probably already familiar with the best of them. ‘American Skin (41 Shots),’ originally written in 1999 and one of Springsteen’s best songs of the past 15 years, finally gets an official studio version after years of airtight performances onstage. Revived in the wake of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last year, the song sounds even more angry now.

Springsteen assembled much of ‘High Hopes’ during breaks on his 2012 tour. Late E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici show up on a few songs from the vaults. So does Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, whose presence on the album elevates Springsteen’s own guitar playing and performance at times. Their duet on the reworked ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ transforms Springsteen’s 1995 folk song from acoustic rumination to electric fury.

But ‘High Hopes’ betrays its sketchy origins at times, especially its middle section, which is filled with forgettable songs that sound like leftovers from Springsteen’s string of ’00s records (it doesn’t help that the album unravels for almost an hour — way too long for an LP cobbled together like this one). For an artist who used to take frustratingly long times between projects, Springsteen sure has rushed them out over the past 10 years.

Still, ‘High Hopes’ has the beginning and end of a more cohesive album, bookmarked by a pair of covers — the Havalinas’ title track, which Springsteen first recorded on a 1995 EP, and Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream,’ respectively — that tear through the semigloss production (by Ron Aniello and Brendan O’Brien) found on the album. Along with ‘American Skin,’ they’re ‘High Hopes” best tracks.

The rest of it falls together, not as recklessly as you’d assume, with a usual mix of late-period Springsteen grandeur and self-importance. Occasionally the songs merit the musical and lyrical heft (‘Down in the Hole,’ ‘The Wall’); often, they don’t (‘This Is Your Sword’ and ‘Hunter of Invisible Game’ aim big but misfire).

By the time the hazy, drifting ‘Dream Baby Dream’ brings ‘High Hopes’ to a fitting close, it feels like vindication for an album that’s often left wandering without the single-minded purpose that typically drives Springsteen’s records. It’s not necessarily an unpleasant stroll, but it’s one that nonetheless stumbles in its journey through the past.

Next: Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs

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