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Bruce Springsteen has always been at his best when the world around him is seemingly at its worst. From Vietnam to mob killings to a life spent in grovelling obeisance to the man, Springsteen’s knack for crafting odes and anthems to the worst society has to offer has been the cornerstone of his discography.
This not only explains why he’s been able to churn out consistently gripping and aesthetically interesting albums for 40 years, it makes his decision to release a collection of covers, reworked old songs, and quaint tidbits titled High Hopes as his latest album all the more curious.
Perhaps even more unusual is the fact that this seeming grab-bag of material die-hard Boss fans are likely to have already heard — and despite the aforementioned retention of his late ’80s lustre, it’s hard to picture anyone else celebrating Springsteen’s modern catalogue — High Hopes is almost equal to its precursor, 2012's Wrecking Ball, in both immediacy and sonic vibrancy.
That’s not to say that High Hopes is free of indulgence or clutter, the two most frequently recurring symptoms of albums such as this, and the two that most degrade that all-important cohesion critics so like to ponder.
Harry’s Place, in which Springsteen again plays narrator to a New York oligarch — “Your blood and money spit shines Harry’s crown” — was recorded during sessions for 2002's The Rising but was deemed inappropriate for a city and nation in mourning. Bard of the working folk or not, The Boss is not without a sense of propriety.
While a propulsive drum beat and the croaks of Tom Morello‘s guitar give the track a distinctive beefiness, the rehashed-sounding lyrics stretch it just past the point of relevance. “Downtown hipsters drinking up the drug line” — guess someone forgot to tell The Boss the hipsters have all moved to Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, Down In The Hole is dragged down by a distracting ‘PA in an empty prison yard’ vocal effect, and Heaven’s Wall, which could have been masterfully realised with a guitar and vocal, suffers from an unfortunate identity crisis, leaving it torn between a polyrhythmic gospel jam and a pastoral folk tune.
Now that the Morello cat is out of the bag, it must be said that it’s a pleasant surprise to hear his characteristically Rage Against the Machine playing style fit so seamlessly into the considerably less punk-informed framework of The E-Street Band. On album opener High Hopes, the gauzy, tremolo-infused wails so familiar to Rage fans sound almost folk-like when set against the shuffling percussion and insistent horns of The Boss’ crew.
Many, including Springsteen himself, have credited Morello with acting as the muse behind the entire project, but The Boss has never needed help in the proletarian indignation department. Morello’s influence is instead most mightily wielded on the rerecording of 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, where together Morello and The Boss turn a weary protest song in the tradition of Woody Guthrie into an inferno.
It stands to reason that out of a shoebox of lyric sheets and some intermittent onstage rehearsals, Springsteen has been able to craft an album that not only bears some of his most affecting work, but also some of his most pertinent.
Such is the case with the somber and sparsely arranged The Wall, a Vietnam elegy that sounds urgent and relevant despite the subject matter taking place in the rearview mirror of history. The track resonates with spiderweb guitars, creeping accordion, and a mournful trumpet solo, reminding the listener that there will always be plenty of names to fill remembrance walls in every country.
Ultimately, it’s the same reason he’s able to transform American Skin (41 Shots), originally written as a lament to the shooting of Amadou Diallo, into his tribute to slain American teenager Trayvon Martin. It is the same reason that out of hopelessness, loss, injustice, even chaos, Springsteen is able to create important and beautiful cultural works. Simply, because he’s The Boss. And while High Hopes is not the finest showcase of the fact, it’s certainly a worthy one.