Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes

Written by January 2nd, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Bruce Springsteen
High Hopes
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

When deciding on material for 2006’s We Shall Overcome, a collection of songs popularized by Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen said he picked the ones he “heard [his] own voice in.” For his new album, High Hopes, Bruce has once again turned to old songs for inspiration, but the 64 year-old singer utilizes a very different body of source material for his follow-up to 2012’s Wrecking Ball. Once endlessly selective with his own recordings, Springsteen has loosened his grip and become his own folk archivist on High Hopes, mining outtakes, cover songs, and fresh recordings of previously released material to help tell his latest story.

One of the album’s peculiar joys is that the New Jersey rocker sounds most like himself when he surrenders songwriting duties, whether on the bleak, defiant third verse of the Tim Scott McConnell-penned title track, or with the glimmering E Street soul-pop on the Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would.” Producer Ron Aniello has a knack for repurposing Bruce’s older material, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” now laced with feedback and a guest verse from Tom Morello, feels newly vibrant. For a record with such disjointed origins, Springsteen’s 18th studio album is a compelling, unified statement: part grief and grievance, part love and transcendence.

In the 21st century, the Boss has generally played the role of revivalist preacher, celebrating faith and hope through his records and his sermonizing on stage. At their worst, the songs on High Hopes retread the enlightened spiritualism that Springsteen has been delivering since The Rising without complicating any of its well-worn tenets. The Bar Mitzvah gospel of “Heaven’s Wall” feels like a forced grab at biblical uplift, while the Celtic-tinged “This Is Your Sword” is a self-serious lesson in strength and courage that overworks its metaphor.

But any doubts about the continuing need for Springsteen’s modern day communal healing fade early, when the sinister groove that runs through the shady underworld of “Harry’s Place” fades, hauntingly, into the murky waters of feedback and echo that introduce “American Skin (41 Shots).” Both songs rely on the same type of sharp specifics that gave life to Bruce’s earliest records, but now Wild Billy and the Magic Rat have turned into Chief Horton and Seesaw Bobby – violent, bitter men who whisper “we do what we must do” to anyone willing to listen. All grown up, their intentions have gone sour with age and power. It is in this dark underworld, one that allows for Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin to be killed without consequence in the back-alleys behind “Harry’s Place,” that there is such dire need for the cries of help, peace, and communion in “American Skin.”

On Wrecking Ball, it was easy to pass over the understated love songs “This Depression” and “You’ve Got It” in favor of the big-mouthed, full-band rave-ups that defined most of the record. They’re much harder to ignore on High Hopes, which finds Bruce at his best when playing the role of unabashed romantic. “I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion,” he sings on the clear standout “Hunter of Invisible Game,” trying to hold on to what little he has left in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The loose, bar-band romp “Frankie Fell In Love” finds Shakespeare giving some advice to his buddy Einstein, who is struggling to scribble down love’s equation. “Man, it’s just one and one makes three,” Shakespeare answers with a smirk, “that’s why it’s poetry.”

High Hopes plays very much like a sequel to Wrecking Ball, but Springsteen is less angry and blameful, more cheerfully weary this time around. “These days I spend my time skipping through the dark,” he sings halfway through the record, in a line that sums up his meager high hopes better than any. Thirty years later, the dancing has mellowed to a skip. He’s put his finger down, no longer blaming robber barons and greedy thieves for the desolation all around him. Instead, he’s heartbroken, wistful, and resigned, and his preferred tonic, as always, is human connection. “Come on and open up your heart,” Bruce sings on Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” That prayer of love, which closes the album, is a well-aged, comfortable notion from Springsteen, and right now that’s how he prefers them.

  • CM

    Pretty good review. However, the album is much much better than that. How many times do you hear an album before you post a review? I do not ask that sarcastically, only for the mere fact that this album can and will grow on you with a few listens.

  • BoxDay

    It is Great, Despite age still shows class.

  • Peter

    With all due respect to Jonathan Bernstein, what relevance or merit do so called reviewers have when grading or assessing the work of an artist with the history and achievements of a Bruce Springsteen? Won a Oscar or two Mr Bernstein? Collected more Grammys than U2, Madonna an MJ put together? Written any decent songs lately?…i mean really!!
    The notation that an artist of Springsteen’s calibre can be reviewed is silly! Reviewed? By who?
    Anyway, album is gorgeous, the last 4 songs in particular are just sublime.
    Check it out.

  • Gary Svehla

    There’s the fan, the artist and the critic. The critic serves the important function of attempting to step outside of the blinding fan circle and look at art in an objective way. Remember, the artist’s job is to create, but it is the critic’s job to create sense and meaning from the art. The fan simply glows in the radiance of the art. A critic’s job is not to create art but to interpret its meaning and worth. The fan’s value is simply to encourage the artist to keep creating. But the critic has the far more important job of detailing the importance of the art created. Peter, stop acting like a fan boy and listen to and think about what critics write. You might find the artist’s work is enriched by the words the critic writes.

  • Randy Hansen

    Springsteen’s last 3 albums have been unlistenable and unbearable. Oh how the mighty have fallen. At least one hint at a possible reprieve: no Brendan O’Brein producing.

  • notanicegirl

    I think you are as full of it as this so called critic. The interpretation comes from the artist. The “reviewer” can give his/her opinion on how they responded to the art but that’s about it. Generally we don’t know what the credentials of any given reviewer are. Most of the good ones are long gone. Springsteen is “heartbroken” and Bernstein knows this because…..? Blah, blah, blah

  • Gary Svehla

    First, there is a difference between the common reviewer (like fans, they state opinions and little else) and the critic whose insights are deeply thought out and well supported. Critics educate, they go far beyond stating opinions. They help us to understand the artist’s intent and help us to appreciate the reasons why the art resonates so deeply in ways that we may not have understood ourselves. Right now the METACRITIC website gives HIGH HOPES a 76, or “generally favorable reviews.” That means most critics appreciate the album for the hodge-podge approach and the re-cycling of songs strategy it offers. It will make some Bruce fans dance in the street, of course, but for the more subjective and discriminating listener, it will ultimately be viewed as a fair or okay album among the masterpieces of which this ain’t one.

  • notanicegirl

    Well, I’m pretty stupid because I pre-ordered it on Amazon so I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t heard it. In fact I’m pissed that it’s been released around the world in every possible format and I won’t get what I’ve paid for until the 15th – live and learn, last time I fall for that kind of promotion. So, I won’t comment on it till I get a chance to listen to it, but I’m glad you have superior knowledge of how everyone else will respond.

  • Peter

    Oh, I know Gary, We are just excited cause the Boss and his orchestra are about to rock the hell out of Australia again in a few weeks!!
    …But on the other hand I don’t really give a shit about ‘critics’ either!
    Now excuse me while I ‘glow in the radiance of the art!’

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