HIGH HOPES (Columbia Records)
Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album opens with a shuffle of strummed acoustic and percussion, cut through with a subtle yet identifiable squawk from the guitar of Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello. Springsteen’s gravel-throated yell builds to where the E Street Band should come busting in, whereupon we’re instead suddenly confronted by sassy brass and the rather mediocre titular refrain of “I got high hopes”. Alarm bells start to ring.
The bombast of the lyric and arrangement on the opener simply fail to grip, especially when compared to other latter-day Springsteen openers such as the brilliant bitter anthem We Take Care of Our Own from 2012’s Wrecking Ball and the ardent Radio Nowhere from 2007’s Magic. As this is the introduction to a patchwork record of covers, re-workings and unreleased numbers, it’s hard not to wonder if maybe those hopes shouldn’t be so high after all. But then Harry’s Place cuts in. Leaving the rollicking trumpets behind, a bubbling 80s synth bass drives through a neon city where Clarence Clemmons’ poignant posthumous sax floats on the air and a hush-voiced Boss warns “You don’t fuck with Harry’s money, you don’t fuck Harry’s girls, these are the rules, this is the world.” It’s dark and menacing and absolutely intoxicating. It’s also a definite peak on an album that goes on to fall and rise, frustrate and reward, in a similar pattern to the opening two tracks.
At times the overblown dramatics unfortunately take hold again, especially in the baroque guitar solos of Heaven’s Wall and the blustery ‘rock’ rendition of The Ghost of Tom Joad (originally from the 1995 folk album of the same name). Elsewhere, the bone-shakin’, victory-makin’ E Street family put the pedal to the floor in the glorious country-tinged Frankie Fell In Love, while on The Wall Springsteen revisits the familiar well-spring of Vietnam in a touching tribute to a New Jersey musician who never made it home. With too many moments that elicit a wince, High Hopes is unlikely to be lauded as a milestone in Springsteen’s 40-year (and counting) career, but there’s enough here to be convinced the Boss isn’t ready to be put out to pasture quite yet.
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Words: Andrew Broaks