Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes” is a collection of covers, reinventions, and new recordings of odds and ends that have been kicking around for the past decade-plus.
Link to Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon video: “Gov Christie Traffic Jam” — (“Born to Run” parody).
By Adam Ellsworth
It doesn’t quite feel right calling High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen’s new release, an “album.” Technically that is of course what it is, but it seems more appropriate to call it a “collection.” Specifically, it’s a collection of covers, reinventions, and new recordings of odds and ends that have been kicking around for the past decade-plus. Listened to in this way, High Hopes is a perfectly fine way to spend fifty-six minutes. It’s not nearly as essential as The Promise, Springsteen’s 2010 compilation of outtakes from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, but you could say the same thing about a few of The Boss’s more traditional albums (looking at you, Working on a Dream), so this isn’t too severe a criticism.
The title track is the collection’s first song and first cover. The original was written by Tim Scott McConnell and released by his band the Havalinas, but even that’s only half the story. Springsteen himself has recorded and released the song before, on the 1996 Blood Brothers EP. The two Springsteen versions are similar, and feature a bit of a zydeco feel, but there’s one very loud difference between the twenty-first century version and its ‘90s cousin: the guitar of Tom Morello.
Yes, the guy from Rage Against the Machine. Morello has always been vocal about his love of the Boss and Rage even covered (reinvented?) Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” in the late ‘90s. When Bruce’s E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt couldn’t play the Australian leg of a tour last year, Morello was called in as a temporary replacement and the relationship between the guitar innovator and his hero grew from there. Not surprisingly then, Morello’s playing is all over High Hopes, including on a new version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that bridges the gap between Springsteen’s folky original and Rage’s crushing rocker.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” is another High Hopes track that’s been kicking around for years, showing up during Springsteen shows since the late ‘90s and being released as a single in 2001. It was originally inspired by the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo by New York City police, but following the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, the song, and its chorus of “You get killed just for living in your American skin,” took on a new life. While Springsteen recorded a studio-version of “American Skin” in 2001, it wasn’t widely released, so it seems safe to call this High Hopes take the definitive (studio) interpretation.
Of course, High Hopes is more than just a collection of songs already known to Springsteen fans. The upbeat rocker “Just Like Fire Would” by Australian band the Saints was played on the first night of Bruce’s 2013 Australian tour, but only that one time, so it’s new to most. Even better, the tune is one of the highlights of the collection. “Frankie Fell in Love” is the kind of bar band-rouser Springsteen and the E Street Band have always done so well, while “This is Your Sword” is reminiscent of our very own Dropkick Murphys, though, perhaps a bit more tame.
The emotional highlight of the collection is “The Wall,” a song which has been played live by Springsteen over the years, but not for nearly a decade. The gentle track tells the story of a man visiting the Vietnam Memorial and holding a conversation with an old friend who’s no longer there. He’s just a name on the wall. It’s no secret that Springsteen opposed the Vietnam War, just as he has opposed more recent American foreign (mis)adventures, but there’s no hectoring here, no “wasn’t the war bullshit?” Instead, it’s a heartfelt tribute to a friend.
High Hopes wraps up with another cover, “Dream Baby Dream” by New York punks Suicide. Like so many of the songs on the collection, Springsteen has played the song live before but this is his first studio recording of it. The synthy-sounding backing almost seems cold, but lyrics like “Come on we got to keep the fire burning” can’t help but pump life and joy into the proceedings. And hey, even if High Hopes doesn’t feel like an “album,” it’s still Springsteen isn’t it? What would you expect if not life and joy?
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.