Bruce Springsteen’s second coming after his 90s spell in the wilderness has seen him generally on top form, but High Hopes is a bit of a mixed bag really.
Not that it should be a big surprise if that’s the case, because he’s called this album ‘a bit of an anomaly’ himself, given that it’s made up of songs left over from other records, plus a few covers and re-recordings.
It was made in between shows on the Wrecking Ball tour, with former Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello (standing in for Steve van Zandt) hugely involved in the process, right down to the new version of the title track (originally done for the Blood Brothers EP in the mid-90s.
As the lead single, that song seemed to suggest that the album would be going even further down the densely-instrumented sound of Wrecking Ball, but most of the rest of the tracks don’t really bear that out.
The most remarkable song on High Hopes is the lengthy new version of The Ghost Of Tom Joad, title track to the still-underappreciated album that split those wilderness years. Morello features on vocals and well as trademark guitar wizardry on a version that adds a load of bombast to the stark original.
Much like the ‘new’ version of Racing In The Street that came out on The Promise, it’s initially jarring to hear a song you love done differently, but exactly like that, it manages to add something without diminishing the original. Though some might tire of the slightly indulgent (but brilliant) guitar battle at the end.
Another returning song is American Skin (41 Shots), originally only available as a live track from the E Street reunion tour album. It’s never been a favourite of mine, with the very politically-charged lyrics overwhelming the music somewhat, but the studio version does fare a bit better.
The rest of the songs are largely off-cuts from Springsteen’s post-2002 revival, and the likes of the lively Harry’s Place and Heaven’s Wall are good fun, with Hunter Of Invisible Game one of my personal favourites. Other tracks like Down In The Hole and the cover of Just Like Fire Would are fine, but sound awfully familiar, which is probably why they hadn’t made it onto albums before.
And that’s the problem with High Hopes. While Wrecking Ball had the title track and Land Of Hope And Dreams (and American Land as a bonus track) as new versions of live favourites, but was held together by strong new material and a cohesive feel, this album feels like what it is, a bit of an odds and ends collection.
None of it’s really bad, but not enough of it is essential to make this one of Springsteen’s best releases. Given the number of re-recordings and covers he’s been doing recently, you hope it’s not a sign of an artist who’s a bit creatively blocked at the moment. But still, there’s fun to be had here, so I won’t end this review on a downer…