One of Bruce Springsteen’s favoured interview riffs characterises the relationship with his audience as a “conversation”. Not via social media (although even Springsteen, a confirmed technoklutz, sent his first tweet in 2013), but in particular at concerts, where this unrivalled performer affects a very personal communion. It’s also the one forum where Springsteen fans can experience some of the conversation’s key texts. For instance, Springsteen has never released a studio version of 1987’s supreme sweat-propelled road anthem Light Of Day. The song’s sole release came on an MTV live album from the unloved wilderness era that followed Springsteen’s dismissal of the E Street Band in 1989 and only truly ended with their restoration in 1999. So if you want to hear Bruce kicking Light Of Day on E Street, you get a ticket for a show… and hope. With over 300 songs either unrecorded or unreleased, The Boss and his fans have a lot to talk about.
“High Hopes is a good song selection, rather than a great album.”
This ongoing conflab somewhat explains High Hopes. The title track is a song by obscure LA roots-rockers The Havalinas that Springsteen first taped in 1995 with the temporarily reunited E Street Band and released on the Blood Brothers EP. This new version was recorded in Sydney amid the band’s 2013 Australian tour, as was Just Like Fire Would, a song by Brisbane’s punk legends The Saints. Alongside these two covers, High Hopes features new studio readings of songs thus far confined to the live domain: most notably American Skin (41 Shots), Springsteen’s response to the killing in New York of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 and the subsequent acquittal of four NYPD officers. Then there’s recordings of previously unheard songs, some built on existing takes featuring departed E Streeters saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici, plus a new version of The Ghost Of Tom Joad – the title track of Springsteen’s 1995 solo acoustic set – as per the band arrangement debuted live in 2008 with guest Tom Morello’s signature guitar melismatics. Finally, yet another cover: Dream Baby Dream by Suicide, Springsteen’s set closer on his 2005 solo tour.
Perhaps inevitably, given the material’s scattered provenance, High Hopes lacks the cohesion, both thematic and sonic, that characterised Magic (2007) and Wrecking Ball (2011), Springsteen’s best 21st century records. Those were self-consciously important statements, nuanced in their blend of the personal and the political. High Hopes is a good song selection, rather than a great album – a distinction that matters when you’re a rock’n’roll superstar who regards current work as important as the heartland texts in curating his legacy.
Not that its peaks are trifling. Pitched adroitly between thunderous melodrama and implication, American Skin would have been a highpoint of any Bruce record. Reintroduced to 2012 setlists, Springsteen dedicated it to Trayvon Martin – another unarmed black man killed in contentious circumstances – and was duly excoriated by Tea Party wing-nuts and their champions in the US media. Doubtless that particular conversation will resume now, with further grist to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh provided by The Wall, a sombre treatise on the futility of war, inspired by memories of Walter Cichon, a ‘60s New Jersey rocker and mentor to the young Springsteen who got drafted and never returned from Vietnam. This song dates from shortly after The Rising (2002); Harry’s Place was actually recorded for that album, in Atlanta with Brendan O’Brien, but Springsteen decided its depiction of an underworld capo and his stooges in high places didn’t fit. Perhaps not, but now it’s a deliciously realised pulsing slab of city primeval, the composite recording process uniting a Clemons solo with Tom Morello’s fractious scraping.
Present on eight of these 12 tracks, the former Rage Against The Machine guitarist divides opinion among the faithful. But aside from …Tom Joad, on which he dishes signature distressed tremolo treatment, his idiosyncrasies are muted, beyond some tasteful strafes on the title track: a far more energised rendering than on Blood Brothers, adhering to the brassy folk-gospel template that shaped Wrecking Ball and the subsequent 17-strong E Street tour incarnation. Likewise Heaven’s Wall, another song whose lengthy production credit – Brendan O’Brien, his successor in the producer’s chair Ron Aniello, and Springsteen himself – suggests a hybrid recording of a song intended for a previous record. Serviceable enough, this Old Testament rabble-rouser falls short of Springsteen’s liner note assertion: “This is music I always felt needed to be released.”
“A pulsing slab of city primeval, uniting a Clemons solo with Tom Morello’s fractious scraping.”
Likewise the I’m On Fire re-tread Down In The Hole – produced by O’Brien, so presumably another leftover – as well as the gigglesome Boss/Miami Steve buddy vehicle Frankie Fell In Love and a further biblical hosanna This Is Your Sword, featuring lashings of Uilleann pipes but not enough fire or brimstone to destroy the temple. These makeweights – none ever played live – comprise the album’s middle-third, sandwiched by a stronger top and bottom, mostly the songs recognisable to diehards at least. A notable exception is the understated Dylanesque existential rumination Hunter Of Invisible Game, featuring some beautifully turned lines: “Strength is vanity and time is illusion/I feel you breathin’/The rest is confusion.”
Already the subject of dark message board mutterings – one conspiracy theory suggests Springsteen is running down his contract with Columbia – High Hopes offers a seesaw trajectory befitting its convoluted rationale. Ultimately, however, any album that finishes with Springsteen’s shattering hymnal treatment of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream is justified: a revisioning so absolute and powerful that Alan Vega himself has declared he wants Springsteen’s version played at his funeral. Double that kudos for guaranteeing a healthy payday for Just Like Fire Would’s battle-weary author Chris Bailey. If one group was worthy of covering The Saints, stalwart barbusters bristling with soul power and Catholic hurt, it’s Bruce Springsteen and this current E Street Band. “Outside my window the world passes by,” sings Bruce, 10 years Bailey’s senior, savouring the bitter-tasting wisdom, “It’s stranger than the truth.” Springsteen is 64, yet the road still stretches ahead and the conversation continues. In The Boss’s world, hope springs eternal.