Bruce Springsteen is back with "High Hopes," after earning Rolling Stone's album of the year award with "Wrecking Ball" in 2012. At 64 years old, "The Boss" has been steadily touring and releasing albums with the legendary E Street Band since his resurgence in 2002 with "The Rising." In 2013, fans started seeing a new face onstage as Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman) filled in for long time guitarist Steven Van Zandt. In a release on his website, Springsteen wrote, "Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level."
The project is "a record of some of our best unreleased material from the past decade." Most of the songs on this record are B sides from various albums, dating all the way back to 2002 in the case of "Harry's Place." Others like "American Skin (41 Shots)" have been part of the live repertoire for years and are finally getting a proper recording. Rounding out the album are a few covers, including the title track, which was originally on the 1995 Blood Brothers EP.
These songs were not only pulled from various places, but recorded at different studios during the band's rigorous touring schedule. The album struggles to function as a whole because of this, and ends up becoming something like a Bruce Springsteen Pandora radio station. There's no common thread running through the songs here, nothing that says these songs are meant to be listened to together in this order. This is especially apparent in the lyrics, where the album jumps from dark and seedy "Harry's Place" to the biblical "Heaven's Wall" to the activism of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" with no particular rhyme or reason.
Pictured is the album cover for Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes.”
Adding to the confusion is the guitar of Tom Morello, which appears on eight of the album's 12 tracks. On songs like "American Skin" and "High Hopes" his affected guitar seems right at home, adding another dimension to the band's sound. However, he really distracts on songs he doesn't fit in, like on the gospel-inspired "Heaven's Wall." He shares lead vocal duties with Bruce on "Tom Joad," making for a great re-recording of a classic, until his exhausting two minute guitar solo where he unnecessarily demonstrates his bag of guitar playing tricks.
That being said, it can't be ignored that there are some good songs in this musical menagerie. "American Skin" has a nice slow build and the band shows off what they can do with some space. "Down in the Hole" belongs on a indie folk record, with Bruce's vocals filtered to great effect. His cover of The Saints' "Just Like Fire Would" is good old-fashioned rock and roll that would fit on any Springsteen album. Fans won't be disappointed, and those familiar with his marathon live performances probably won't even register the lack of unity throughout. Ultimately, this isn't an album you need to spend an hour with, but a collection of good tunes from Springsteen's past decade.
3 stars out of 5.
DOWNLOAD NOW: "Down in the Hole"