Bruce Springsteen’s legacy has avoided becoming synonymous with one single genre or movement. Though the 64-year-old has done everything from crafting arena-filling rock songs to hushed acoustic numbers, The Boss has long dedicated himself to rambunctiously chasing whatever muse he finds himself taken with at that moment. His career is punctuated with course-altering albums, and the past decade has seen him release everything from a handful of full-band rock records to albums of re-worked folk standards. In that time, Springsteen has abandoned as much material (if not more) than he’s released, and his 18th studio album, High Hopes, serves as an attempt to bring these divergent interests together.
Consisting of covers, re-worked material, and live-set staples, it’s fitting that the recording of High Hopes was piecemeal, taking place all over the world and between several tours, with certain sessions resurrecting the aural spirits of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons (two deceased E Street-ers who—especially in the case of Clemons—often had their contributions carry as much weight as the frontman they were backing.) Though Springsteen has been known to pore over an album’s sequence, often allowing his studio records to possess a distinct tone surrounding a concise set of themes, High Hopes both suffers and succeeds from being the most fractured album in Springsteen’s discography.
It’s not uncommon for Springsteen to kick open the vaults and release already-completed material, and compilations Tracks and The Promise offered songs as excellent as the albums they were crafted alongside. By updating vintage recordings for High Hopes, Springsteen allows Clemons’ mighty sax to soar once more, but when juxtaposed next to fresh additions, the resulting material sadly suggests that Springsteen is attempting to hold onto a time when the vitality of his E Street Band couldn’t be shaken. Yet, for all the looking back he does, he simultaneously attempts to move forward undaunted, bringing in his so-called “muse” (Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello) for three-quarters of the album’s tracks. At times Morello feels like nothing more than an overdubbed afterthought, and it’s in these spots that the disjointed nature of High Hopes’ creation begins to show.
For each song that becomes a post-millennium Springsteen classic—live staple “American Skin (41 Shots)” gets an appropriately massive studio rendition; the quick, pop-rock punch of “Frankie Fell In Love” could have easily called Magic or The River its home; the experimental “Down In The Hole” includes an intro that could best be described as “light industrial,” yet somehow works—there’s a handful of ham-fisted inclusions that only throw heavier wrenches into the gears. The Morello-filled re-recording of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” is extraneous at best, and the gospel-gone-roots-rock of “Heaven’s Wall” and the Lou Reed facsimile “Harry’s Place” derail any momentum the album has built.
It’s hard to get past the fact that, for all its success, the songs on High Hopes are barely tied together. Had it been presented as an odds-and-ends collection, the record’s muddled flow would be easier to forgive. Instead, High Hopes stammers and stumbles, forgetting that Springsteen’s strength is in his ability to juxtapose stadium-shaking rockers and bare-bones ballads without losing sight of an album’s bigger picture. With High Hopes, Springsteen splashes his brightest colors against a canvas, crosses his fingers, and hopes they mesh.