Unlike some, I didn’t approach Bruce Springsteen’s eighteenth studio album High Hopes with trepidation. Admittedly, any artist with the stature of Springsteen who releases an album of covers and cut-offs will be accused of a lack of ideas, milking the success of their previous work. Yet, I trusted Springsteen. 2012’s Wrecking Ball was an innovative and stylish addition to The Boss’s repertoire, with several of the tracks settling well into the loose set lists of the relentless 2012-2013 world tour. Indeed Springsteen’s incredible arsenal of nuanced ballads and barnstorming rock ‘n’ roll ranks amongst the greatest back catalogues of all time. For these reasons, his latest effort cannot be dismissed as a cash cow. When push comes to shove, High Hopes is a good album, with a series of decent tracks and a smattering of standouts. Yet it is by no means a demonstration of Springsteen’s undeniable genius – this reviewer expects there is better to come.
Due to the scrapbook nature of the album, it’s difficult to pin down a definitive sound. The titular High Hopes, a cover of Tim Scott McConnell, is typical Springsteen, with a thumping chorus saturated by glissandos and multi-layered vocal harmonies. The utilisation of horns throughout the track meanwhile, is effective in keeping this recognisable sound from becoming too generic. However, the album constantly veers in alternate directions. The Hues Corporation-esque gospel of Heaven’s Wall glitters without being memorable, while the slow burning 41 Shots and Down In The Hole flicker incandescently, the former developing into a cutting guitar solo performed by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame.
Yet Morello’s greatest contribution to the album is to The Ghost of Tom Joad, High Hopes’ magnum opus. This reimagining of a track, released by Springsteen in 1995 originally, is infinitely ahead of the rest of the album. First reworked for live performances in 2008, this recording is sublime and moves from a powerful refrain to a coda that sees Morello deliver a virtuoso guitar solo. It seems a fitting end to the album, and proves to be my lasting memory of High Hopes, despite two tracks succeeding it in the running order.
For any fans of Bruce Springsteen therefore, I recommend picking up this album, as it proves to be a valuable anthology of his work over the last decade and a half. Yet whilst his forays into different genres - as in the Celt-rock of This Is Your Sword - prove, his talent stretches out of his comfort-zone; for the most part, this album cannot be described as vintage Springsteen. We all know he is capable of more. Surely this is just a stop-gap.