I’m a huge Bruce fan. Damn hell ass huge. I know most of his catalog (which is massive), and of course I was excited about the release of High Hopes at the start of 2014 when it was announced in late 2013. I streamed it several times upon its release, but I had to put this review aside for a while I finished up my 2013 reviews — they spilled over until the first few months of 2014 — and extensively revamped the site. Every now and then, I would stream High Hopes again, and my opinion of it pretty much lessened with each additional run through. So I never bought it, and have no plans to do so. I guess my habits as a music consumer are finally catching up with the rest of the world’s.
Interestingly enough, the last album I purchased on CD was none other than Springsteen‘s previous album, 2012‘s Wrecking Ball — at the time, I was buying on digital for most of my purchases except for the artists I counted as my favorites, since I wanted to feel like I was still collecting something. As an aside, my consumer habits have always slightly lagged behind everyone else’s, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because I value music so much and don’t see it as product or just entertainment. In the old days, there would be the music, which we all wanted access to, but as a way of getting us there, the artists and labels would have to tack on all sorts of value on top of the music. I feel like each technological step forward has eliminated that extra value (e.g., high-budget music videos) — it’s the price of unhindered access, I suppose.
Anyway, I guess I should actually talk about High Hopes, since it’s why you’re here. It’s an interesting new addition to Springsteen‘s still-expanding catalog, but it’s not a necessary one by any stretch of the imagination — these are all covers, outtakes, and re-recordings. Had these tracks never seen the light of day, the world would not exactly have been missing much, even though many of them are pretty good. Much of the problem lies with the incorporation of guest guitarist Tom Morello (he appears on eight tracks), who happens to be one of my favorites but simply doesn’t gel with Springsteen‘s sound particularly well here. The title cut (and opening track) is the primary offender in this regard — Morello‘s choppy guitar work gives the song a herky-jerky feel that’s hard to shake.
As for “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which Morello‘s band Rage Against the Machine covered in the late ’90s to astonishing effect, the whole is far less than sum of its parts, as the newly redone track is bogged down by both Morello‘s subpar voice — this version is a duet — and its pointless length and repetition. Other songs — particularly in the middle section of the album — glide by without really taking hold, and as with the slower songs on Wrecking Ball, the more deliberate tracks tend to crawl. Curiously, the new version of “American Skin (41 Shots)” carries the unmistakable weight of the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin, even though the song was originally recorded and released in 2001. Apparently Springsteen started performing it again — dedicating the song to Martin to each time — once George Zimmerman was found not guilty, but even without that piece of information, the connection is obvious, which is rather surreal.
Other good ones are the Rising-era outtake “Harry’s Place,” “Hunter of Invisible Game,” and the cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” Overall, High Hopes is an interesting listen, and is even pretty enjoyable the first few times through, but once the lack of cohesion sets in, weaknesses start to appear, and before you know it you’ll find yourself skipping tracks and never really listening to the album all the way through. As an odds-and-ends album that captures modern-era Springsteen, it does its job fairly well (everything here is new to some degree), but it sags in comparison to Springsteen‘s classics — even the ones from the era this material is drawn from.