|"The light from the oncoming train focuses the mind."|
Back in the early '90s, the idea of Bruce Springsteen collaborating with someone as edgy and innovative as the guitarist from Rage Against The Machine would've sounded too far-fetched and wild. But last year's Australian tour that had Tom Morello temporarily replacing Steve Van Zandt proved that even with all the craziness and chaos the guitar wizard could create, he actually turned out to be a great fit for the ever-expanding E Street sound. His presence and musicianship rejuvenated the band further. Believe me; I experienced it firsthand. It was only a matter of time before he ended up recording a full album with Bruce. He is all over High Hopes, Bruce's 18th studio album, which comes twenty-two months after the masterpiece that was Wrecking Ball.
It is universally understood that High Hopes doesn't contain any recent songs that were written within the past two years. But just one full listen will dispel this notion of a hodgepodge collection of songs that were conceived over a (very creative) ten year period. The twelve tracks may tackle a variety of familiar, classic Springsteen themes, but musically, they flow so well into one another you would actually think they were meant to be together on the same album. The order in which Bruce sequenced them is impeccable, and it's something producer Ron Aniello has stressed about in the recent Rolling Stone interview [link]. The release of this record just seems like a logical progression in Bruce's career, him looking back to his old stuff and other people's for meaning and inspiration. It feels and sounds like a very cohesive piece of work.
The title track that opens up the album is the most hard-hitting since Radio Nowhere on Magic. It's Bruce making a statement, 'This is the new era of the E Street Band. This is how we sound like now.' While it is better than what was originally recorded in '95, it doesn't hold a candle to the live version. You can't fully appreciate it till you hear it performed live. Harry's Place is pretty fantastic, though it's such an unusual tune for Bruce as it sounds very dated, very '80s Miami Vice soundtrack-like, an upbeat Don Henley or Glenn Frey solo song. But Morello's guitar gives it a more contemporary feel, like he does on many of the tracks he plays on here. The colorful lyrics about the mysterious gangster underworld recall the early days of Greetings and WIESS. Bruce claimed it was recorded for Magic, with references to the Bush years, and it kinda makes sense. Clarence Clemons' sax is featured here, providing an aura of film-noir mystique (also welcome back, bullet mic). I love the slow distorted wailing fade as it segues into the classic American Skin (41 Shots), this time beginning with a more menacing-sounding synth. It's mighty powerful, and what Bruce was addressing more than ten years ago has taken on different horrific forms in today's society. The band actually recorded a studio version back in 2001. This current one is longer and has a more modern, fleshed-out production, trumping even the Live In NYC version. Morello's signature wah-wah solos calls for repeated listening, adding something new to what was lacking previously.
The beginning of Just Like Fire Would sounds almost exactly like John Mellencamp's Small Town. If I hadn't heard the original by The Saints, I would've easily mistaken it for a Springsteen song; the lyrics especially are so up his alley. It's got all the classic elements of an E Street number, it's got those killer horns. I love it when Bruce channels his 1978 voice; it's damn awesome. This will rock hard live. Down In The Hole (this and Harry's Place produced by Brendan O'Brien) is an outtake from The Rising, and it would've made The Rising an even better album had it been included. Driven by a strong I'm On Fire groove, it's a chilling, devastating account about searching for a lost loved one amidst the rubble. What makes this a stunner are the little subtleties; the industrial-like percussion in the background, Bruce's muted voice in the beginning, the change in tempo when the strings come in. Patti Scialfa provides some of her best vocals here.
Heaven's Wall is straight-up gospel rock, containing some vivid biblical imagery, and by Bruce's standards, not so unusual after having heard the likes of Death To My Hometown, Shackled And Drawn and Rocky Ground. It's a great, rousing song that makes full use of the E Street choir, and it should be a fun one live (just imagine percussionist Everett Bradley going nuts on the bongos during the intro). However I'm struggling to hear what Bruce is mumbling about as his voice is mixed way too low. The following 'nonsensical' Frankie Fell In Love has a couple of snappy lines about a church mouse and a conversation between Einstein & Shakespeare, and an infectious melody circa The River era, the type of three-minute pop ditty Little Steven advocates. Just one of those songs you wish Bruce had put out earlier; there have been far too few Bruce/Stevie duets the past few records. The short This Is Your Sword, with its positive, almost cliched lyrics about finding one's courage and resilience in the face of adversity, wouldn't have sounded out of place on Wrecking Ball or even Working On A Dream, and the bagpipes and Celtic rock vibe lift it out of mediocrity. This is the only track where Max Weinberg doesn't play drums on. Elsewhere on the album though, he's at the top of his game, same goes for the other core members of the E Street Band.
Next comes Hunter Of Invisible Game, easily the best song on the album, and featuring some of Bruce's best songwriting in the past decade. Simple, absolutely gorgeous string melody accompanied by beautiful sonic textures, with Morello playing a more restrained part. Bruce does a sort of 'method singing' here, effectively taking on the role of someone journeying through a dystopian landscape, searching for salvation, even when all hope is lost. It appropriately fades off through a crackling transistor radio, and then all of a sudden a big bang, as the drums and guitar distortion enter The Ghost Of Tom Joad, just like in the live versions. Morello plays more or less the same solos, and surprisingly it works well here as it does onstage. It's fierce as fierce gets, gobsmacking, skin-piercing, right through the heart.
The Wall may very well be Bruce's greatest Vietnam song. It sounds like it was recorded very early on (Bruce still had that particular late '90s voice), a poignant letter to a local music hero who never returned from the war, its somberness akin to the equally excellent Brothers Under The Bridge from Tracks. Danny Fedirici's repetitive organ is brilliant and haunting. The album starts and ends with covers. Dream Baby Dream couldn't be a more fitting finish. I was blown away when I first heard Bruce's rendition in 2005. This is one fine example of taking someone else's song and totally turning it upside down, making it your own. The live version will go down as one of the all-time great covers by any music artist. Period. It sounds nothing like the original by Suicide (I have a feeling Bruce was also inspired by another one of the duo's earlier tunes, Keep Your Dreams). As much as I dig this new souped-up, what-would-Roy-Orbison-do version, I still think it's more emotional without the extra instrumentation (a definitive official live soundboard recording is available on iTunes). I'm saying this as objectively as I possibly can; High Hopes is another near-perfect Springsteen album, full of musical and lyrical surprises. I'm glad these lost songs have finally found a home.
P.S. The bonus DVD performance of the Born In The USA album live in London last year is yet another excellent showcase of the immense talent and power of the E Street Band. It is brilliantly mixed and instrument separation is crystal clear. Garry Tallent is such an underrated bass player. Downbound Train and My Hometown was especially moving.