Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
Posted on Wednesday, 8 January 2014 | No Comments
Great news, Human Touch! You're no longer the worst Springsteen album!
The accusation often flung at the critic is we're only in it for the brickbats. No matter how much you might find praiseworthy or want to promote, it's sadly inevitable that a negative opinion will travel for longer and be heard louder than a thousand positive notices. (For the reader at home: try and recall any positive reviews you remember. Then think of any negative ones. See which side always wins out.) Never mind the fact that you've had to spend a reasonable amount of time grappling with and considering a piece of art you don't enjoy before the words even start to come out: apparently we're all just negative, jealous people hoping for those more successful and popular than us to fail. To which I of course say, utter nonsense. (Well, maybe not the last bit of that all the time, but I never made any claims towards my personality now, did I?)
All of which is a long way of saying that, given that this blog is run purely in my spare time with no money for my work on it forthcoming, whenever a negative review ends up here, it's normally because it's a work I had originally approached with certain expectations of enjoyment from and instead came away from disappointed, intent on warning the record-buying public (okay, music-stealing public: who am I even kidding?). "Hey Mark, you could even say you had 'High Hopes' for it!", says the hypothetical moron sitting at the back of my head. How cute of him.
Turning to matters at hand though, Springsteen releases these days might not all be grand statements, but they usually have something going for them. After a decade largely in artistic wilderness in the nineties, from the reinvigorated and powerful The Rising twelve years ago, he's found a late-in-the-day streak of form that very few classic rockers have managed: there's been a successful incursion into folk with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, defiant statement records like Wrecking Ball and a genuine E Street gem in the form of Magic. Even Working on a Dream, generally agreed to be his weakest modern release, still held a few aces up its sleeve like The Wrestler. That's of course without even mentioning his perpetually praised live show, still considered by many the yardstick by which all other rock performers are to be measured/ In short, since reuniting with the E Street Band in 1999, he's defined how to maintain relevant and important in the rock'n'roll game into middle age and beyond - forget bores like the shambling corpse that was once The Rolling Stones, Springsteen has laid down the template for any rocker who wants to grow old with their vitality intact.
So what the hell happened with High Hopes? Well, let's get the elephant out of the room first off - in hiring Tom Morello, The Boss has made his worst HR decision since firing Clarence Clemons at the end of the eighties. His work on Wrecking Ball added little to the already crowded sonics of that record, but at least he managed to remain (by his standards) relatively subdued. Here however, he becomes an inescapable presence that coats most of the record in bad effects and tired hair metal riffs that can only raise the question "seriously, this was the guy from Rage Against The Machine?" His crimes here are numerous, and would sink the record single-handedly, but the nadir comes when he comes to ruin an electric run-through of older acoustic track The Ghost of Tom Joad. An efficient, enjoyable arrangement is utterly torn apart when he comes in to wank off all over it - and trust me, for playing that's this indulgent and at odds with everything else going on around it, that's the only word that's apt - resulting the trashing of one of the few classics of Springsteen's nineties and, at the five-and-a-half minute mark, the single most repellent and dreadful guitar solo I have ever heard. Even the piss-pot shredders down your local guitar shop on a Saturday could detect the bullshit coming off this one a mile off. The other classic dusted off here, the superb American Skin (41 Shots) which fell through the cracks after its live debut in 1999 but found itself revived on tour recently in the wake of the miscarriage of justice of the Trayvon Martin case, thankfully doesn't meet quite as grizzly a fate, but it's much harder to enjoy the might of the E Street Band when you're fearing another strike of wah-wah bollocks at any moment.
Even without him though, High Hopes was destined to be a distinctly minor work in the Springsteen canon. Whereas all his albums usually hang together on well-considered narrative and/or sonic lines, this is just a grab-bag of re-recorded covers and unused scraps thrown together with little care or attention. Of the previously unused tracks, there's a couple that merit such revisiting - the gothic folk stomp of Down In The Hole, a song from the early noughties that would have sat well in the mid-section of Wrecking Ball and the sombre, affecting 1998 composition The Wall - but these find themselves outweighed by the pointless, the tastelessly realised (with The Rising outtake Harry's Place really suffering here: Morello strikes again, but he's just symptomatic of a badly thought out funk arrangement) and the plain dreadful. For those of you who found the light-weight jollity of Working on a Dream too much, then Frankie Fell in Love is liable to bring out the Torben Ulrich in you. Then, just to fill the disc out, there's a clutch of pointless covers, two of which - the title track and Just Like Fire Would are just irrelevant and the last of which, a studio version of his Suicide cover Dream, Baby, Dream. A surprising and startling addition to his acoustic tour in support of Devils & Dust, this recording unfortunately destroys the stillness and power of Springsteen's live arrangement by dumping syrupy strings and the studio sink from two minutes onwards. In it's way, it's a suitably ill-advised and tacky end to an album that manages to be so all too often.
Of all the album's flaws though, perhaps the most troubling is the seeming cynicism of the project. Previous archival releases like Tracks and The Promise have been immaculately conceived ventures, receiving the same level of care and quality control as any new album would. But here that sense of focus and purpose is nowhere to be found. Even on Human Touch and Lucky Town, there was clearly something Springsteen wanted to say, put together with thought and effort. Everything about this release just screams cash-in: between the inclusion of current live recruit Tom Morello, the re-recording of older songs recently added back to the set list and the timing of the release just prior to a summer tour of Australia and New Zealand - this isn't an album, this is goddamn tour merch. Only good tour merch is built to last, while this shoddy construction is just a way to get a few more bucks as the audience heads back to their cars at the end of the night, and hell, since we've got this thing now, might as well shove it out elsewhere and let the fans pick it up expecting a new record rather than the lemon we're selling them.
Doubtlessly, he'll keep playing some great shows and then come back with a significantly better album of actual new material in the near future and we can sweep this one under the carpet. And it's not like High Hopes is irredeemable - Springsteen's still good a songwriter for that level of calamity. But between Morello's abysmal playing, the scrappy nature of the material and the lack of any kind of message or statement to this one, High Hopes fails by pretty much any yardstick you'd use to measure good Springsteen by, and as such the only conclusion that can be reached is that this pointless, trivial release marks the new bottom rung of his discography. Here's to The Boss climbing back up the ladder shortly.