High Hopes (Sony Music)
There’s an awful lot of goodwill for Bruce Springsteen and rightly so – but I did laugh when Rolling Stone described this album of re-recorded out-takes, live favourites and cover versions as “a portrait of the artist at the top of his 21st-century game”. Not that it’s a damp squib. The jubilant, defiant sound of his 2012 album, Wrecking Ball, is all over these songs, most of them ten years old or more, now beefed up with show-band horns, military snares and huge, ramshackle choruses.
Every member of the touring E Street Band is featured, including the dead ones, plus 19 additional musicians and Bruce’s children on backing vocals. Nothing sounds dated – apart from, perhaps, the 2001 song “Harry’s Place”, which could have been the theme of Tony Soprano – while the protest song “American Skin (41 Shots)”, inspired by the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, now echoes the story of Trayvon Martin. Springsteen, who is known to tear his hair out about track sequencing, has chosen to open and close the album with cover versions, which must be significant – as is the prominence given to Tom Morello of the rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine, who gets a “featuring” credit on more than half the songs here. Springsteen describes the 49-year-old guitarist, who is currently part of his band, as his “muse”. For me, this is the truly remarkable thing about High Hopes.
Springsteen has been subtly curating his musical middle age for some time now, making surprise cameo appearances alongside bands such as the Gaslight Anthem, whose music is so clearly influenced by his own. The focus of his creativity these days is live shows and these remain captivating: during his three-hour Glastonbury set in 2009, I forgot to move, standing with my weight on one leg, and could not walk properly for two days.
His recent songwriting is geared towards live performance. You can’t overestimate the bonding power of “Death to My Home Town” from Wrecking Ball, its jingle-jangle arrangement evoking the sense of thousands of voices, past and present; its fiery, Celtic treatment missing only a dramatic voice-over from Liam Neeson.
On the new album, “Just Like Fire Would” hits a similar spot: “Five-hundred miles I have gone today/Tomorrow it’s 500 more . . . I go to work and I earn my pay, Lord/And the sweat it falls to the ground.” It was originally recorded by the Australian band the Saints in the 1980s. Springsteen has a knack of picking up songs by tough, workaday rock bands that sound like they could have been written by him: this contributes to the powerful feeling that he remains connected to people.
His own composition “The Wall”, which was written in 1998 but gets its first airing here, raises the ghosts of the real-life Jersey band the Motifs and their front man, Walter Cichon, who died in Vietnam. Cichon was “one of those heroes you could touch and speak to”, he writes in the sleeve notes: “cool but always accessible . . . the first person I ever stood in the presence of who was filled with the mystique of a true rock star”.
Springsteen wasn’t a barrel of laughs as a kid himself, by all accounts. Aloof and solitary, “interested only in himself and his music”, according to a teacher at Freehold Regional High School, he’d bunk off class to worry over the chord progressions of Stones and Beatles songs and head up to Fillmore East two or three nights a week on his own. In early interviews, he told reporters that he was so “weird” that he had to see a child psychologist. And at his early gigs, he’d lament his relationship with his father: “He couldn’t accept the idea that I had a dream.”
Walter Cichon is the kind of musician that this complicated, single-minded boy worked to become – connected and collaborative. Springsteen credits his friend Joe Grushecky with both the title and the “idea” for the song. To acknowledge that creative debt seems bold to me.
Tom Morello first came to Springsteen’s attention after he covered the 1995 ballad “The Ghost of Tom Joad” with Rage Against the Machine (there’s a robust new version on High Hopes). You may remember when that band’s signature tune “Killing in the Name”, a thrashing condemnation of police brutality, became the Christmas number one in 2009, after a Facebook campaign to hold an X Factor winner off the slot. On tour, Springsteen introduces Morello as “the best guitarist in the world”, or some such, then follows one of Morello’s cosmic, brilliant solos with a rather flimsy one of his own. Being seen to be the best is not what this is about.
In promoting Morello, Springsteen is symbolically falling into line alongside generations of American protest singers and musical activists, just as he is whenever he talks about Woody Guthrie onstage. His ongoing transformation into a fully collaborative, modern folk act represents a new era in his career. Admitting that you need other people suggests that you’re concerned about remaining “useful”. That in itself ensures you are.