It has been eight years since the prominent Rolling Stone magazine has given an album by Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen a rating lower than 4.5/5 stars. But is that to say that the 2009’s mediocre “Working on a Dream” is of the same musical caliber as 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” a tremendous ode to America’s working class? Both albums received the same 5/5 rating but “Born in the U.S.A.” is arguably one of the best rock albums of all time. Now, one might wonder why this phenomenon might occur so often with artists in the same godlike category as Springsteen. The answer is simple. Springsteen’s songs are all extremely well composed both lyrically and musically. The man knows how to tell a story and place it over a catchy and unique chord progression that stands out in a world of pop music dominated by the same four chords. While one Springsteen song may not even compare to another, most of his pieces outshine the majority of releases in the music world. And music publications simply adore him.
Springsteen’s 18th studio album, “High Hopes,” which hit stores on Jan. 14, quickly topped the charts, becoming the artist’s 11th album to occupy the number one position. However, “High Hopes” does not consist of any truly original material. The album is composed of 12 previously written songs, many of which had never been recorded, let alone released on a studio album, save for “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and the title track. Such a direction is not totally surprising, as Springsteen’s previous Grammy-award winning record, “Wrecking Ball,” included several re-recorded songs including the ode to Giants Stadium, “Wrecking Ball” and the anthem, “American Land.” However, Springsteen has never released an entire album of such songs before.
While the structure and style of each of “High Hope’s” songs screams “Springsteen,” the musicality and instrumentation, accompanied by heavy studio production and layers of sound, follow in the footsteps of the album’s predecessor, 2012’s “Wrecking Ball.” Springsteen has continued to experiment with new production techniques, vocal effects and various genres, including African and Caribbean reggae and soul, grunge, industrial rock and stadium guitar-rock. Furthermore, the replacement of Steve Van Zandt by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello significantly affects the sound dynamic on the album. Each song is a little heavier and more electrified, not to mention often highlighted by feedback and distortion-driven Rage Against the Machine-esque riffing.
The opening title track, a cover of a 12-string acoustic blues song by Tim “Ledfoot” McConnel, revamps a previously released Springsteen rendition of “High Hopes,” from the 1996 “Blood Brothers EP.” While both versions are similar, the newer interpretation flaunts Morello’s guitar style tremendously. While “High Hopes” starts rather abruptly, building upon diminished, acoustic chords, Morello’s screeching feedback and Springsteen’s gruff vocals, the track builds into a massive jam that could only be orchestrated by the Springsteen’s talented E Street Band.
Had the next track, “Harry’s Place,” been released in the 70s or 80s, it would probably have sounded somewhat folky and driven by a bluesy piano riff, slapped onto the end of “Darkness of the Edge of Town.” The song tells a story of the standard Springsteen character, the working class recluse searching for an escape from it all. However, musically, the song leans away the classic Springsteen sound and instead boasts an industrial-alternative feel reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails or Garbage. The song is wonderfully dark and catchy, but seems as though it could have been an outtake from “Wrecking Ball.”
The album’s fourth song, “Just Like Fire Would,” comes as a refreshing breath to all fans loyal to Springsteen’s classic rock roots, playing on a fun Tom Petty-esque guitar progression, exploding into a light, catchy chorus. The track could fit right in next to “Hungry Heart” and “Out in the Street” on 1980s “The River.”
However, the finest two tracks on the album are “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” “American Skin” was originally written in 2000 in response to the brutal police shooting of the unarmed Amadou Diallo after he withdrew his wallet from his jacket pocket. The song had only been previously recorded live, though in a more folk-like manner. The version on “High Hopes,” like the original live version, builds up over the course of seven and a half minutes in an explosion of swirling keyboards, distorted vocals and an electric guitar blowout. The only difference between the versions is the dominance of Morello’s screaming lead guitar fills. The new rendition of “Ghost of Tom Joad,” which bares a strong similarity to that performed by the E Street Band and Morello at the 2008 Rock and Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert, transforms the original song, a melancholy and somewhat lukewarm interpretation, into a grandiose and detonating arena rocker full with a harmonized chorus, multiple lead singers, dueling guitar solos and drum fills like machine gun fire.
Springsteen has managed to turn a set of mostly archaic and somewhat lackluster tracks into banging musical brutes. That being said, even after being totally revamped, many of the songs, are still somewhat subpar. Often, artists seem to second guess themselves and release music that was purposely withheld from past albums. There had to have been a reason for such a decision when it was first made, so why need it be undone? While the raw songs on “High Hopes” are objectively well written songs, especially compared to music by other artists. However, most of the tracks on “High Hopes” pale in comparison to anything on classic Springsteen albums. Additionally, the overproduced sound that appears throughout the entire album detracts from what could otherwise have been a more easily digested record. Definitive releases like “Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born In The U.S.A.” and even 2007’s “Magic” capture the denim-clad power of Bruce Springsteen’s timeless American magnificence.