How do you solve a problem like High Hopes, the “new” (note the quotation marks) album by Bruce Springsteen?
Imagine you’re a Springsteen fan. Scratch that. Imagine you’re a Springsteen fanatic—the sort of zealot who spent the first 22 years of his life in South and Central Jersey, the heart of Springsteen country; who at the age of two would entertain his parents’ dinner guests by performing selections from Born in the U.S.A., complete with his own improvised toddler choreography; who refused to back out of the driveway the day he got his license without first cueing up “Born to Run” on the car stereo; who spent far too many summer nights in high school strumming “Hungry Heart” on the sands of the Jersey Shore in a vain attempt to impress the local girls; and who has eagerly anticipated and basically adored everything Bruce has ever released.
Now imagine that you’ve received an advance copy of High Hopes in the mail a couple of weeks before its official Jan. 14 release date. You slip the CD into the stereo and press play. You listen to song after song—attentively, open-mindedly, optimistically. But as the final track fades out, you can no longer deny it. You’ve never been disappointed by a Springsteen album before. But that’s exactly what High Hopes feels like: a disappointment.
This is the pickle I find myself in as I sit down to review Bruce’s latest.
We’ve arrived at a tricky point in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. As of 2014, pretty much all of the genre’s golden-age practitioners are officially senior citizens. Many of the bands they formed back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are broken up; many of the members of those bands are dead. Of the few who remain—the survivors—the most popular career path seems to be reciting the greatest hits live, over and over again, in an entertaining (and lucrative) display of musical endurance that nonetheless doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the kind of creativity that made them famous in the first place. The Rolling Stones, for example, have been relentlessly reissuing, repackaging, and touring on their back catalog in recent years, but they haven’t released a new LP in nearly a decade.
And then there are the holdouts—the AARP-aged artists who are still trying to stay in touch with their muse. Bob Dylan, 72. David Bowie, 66. Paul McCartney, 71. And, of course, Bruce Springsteen, who will turn 65 in September.
What do we owe these legends? How should we respond to their new material, as fans? Should we be grateful for whatever music they deign to release and grade them on a curve because of it? Should every new Dylan, Bowie, or McCartney record receive a Lifetime Achievement Award of sorts? Or should we hold these guys to the same, higher standard we held them to back in 1964, or 1971, or 1984: how good is the album itself, regardless of whether it’s their first or their 31st?
As Springsteen fans, we’ve been fortunate. We haven’t really had to grapple with these questions yet. After experiencing a musical midlife crisis in the 1990s—a“lost period” during which “I didn’t do my best work,” Springsteen has admitted—The Boss reunited with the E Street Band in 1999 and spent the next 15 years releasing one forceful (Wrecking Ball), intriguing (Devils & Dust), or just downright fantastic album (The Rising) after another. It’s been a remarkable late-career run for Bruce. Only Dylan’s current, post-Time Out of Mind renaissance can compare.
But High Hopes interrupts Springsteen’s streak. The problem isn’t that the music is bad, per se (although “Harry’s Place,” a gruff non-tune festooned with seedy sax riffs and dated washes of wah-wah guitar sounds more like the theme song to a 1987 Steven Bochco network drama about corrupt Newark cops than a proper Springsteen track). Instead, the problem is that, on High Hopes, the impossibly lofty standards Springsteen has set for himself over the last 41 years seem to have slackened. For the first time, the Boss has lowered the bar.
Some of the songs here are enjoyable. Like all of Bruce’s finest work, “Hunter of Invisible Game,” an Appalachian ballad about desire and desperation, feels totally inevitable, as if it was carved in stone during the Paleolithic period. The lovely “Down in the Hole” resurrects the vibe of Springsteen’s 1993 classic “Streets of Philadelphia” for a haunting soliloquy by a 9/11 rescue worker. “The Wall,” a tribute to a fellow Jersey Shore rocker named Walter Chicon who died in Vietnam, boasts the kind of detailed, devastating lyric—rare these days—that The Boss used to write by the dozens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And the raucous “Frankie Fell in Love” is going to blow the roof off of a stadium near you next summer.
And yet High Hopes is missing something essential—that bedrock Springsteen blend of discipline and ambition.
When The Beatles recorded an LP, they rarely had any leftovers; almost everything they wrote was eventually pressed on vinyl. Springsteen has always been different. For Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Born to Run, he wrote more than 50 songs per album, then spent months whittling the final tracklists to the bare necessities. By 1998, he had amassed an archive of more than 350 unreleased songs—three-quarters of his entire recorded catalog. The quality of Springsteen’s rejects was often staggering; for proof, check out the 1998 rarities box set Tracks or, even better, 2010’s The Promise, an entire lost double-album that Bruce recorded after Born to Run, then shelved for the next 33 years. The guy was an obsessive. A perfectionist. That’s what made so many of his albums so great. Every song was there for a reason: tone, story, theme, whatever. Just being a good song wasn’t reason enough.
Like Tracks or The Promise, High Hopes has been cobbled together from castoffs. “Harry’s Place” is a Rising reject. “The Wall” was written in 1998. “Heaven's Wall,” “Down in the Hole,” and “Hunter of Invisible Game” all date from the mid-Aughties. “Just Like Fire Would,” “Dream Baby Dream,” and “High Hopes” are cover songs, the last of which Springsteen recorded and released once before (on 1996’s Blood Brothers EP). “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is also a new version of a previously released song, in this case the title track of Springsteen’s eleventh studio album (which originally came out in 1995). And “American Skin (41 Shots)” is a longtime concert favorite that first appeared in 2000’s Live in New York City and later surfaced on The Essential Bruce Springsteen.
And yet, unlike The Promise and Tracks, High Hopes isn’t an archival release. It’s a new Springsteen LP. In theory, the distinction shouldn’t really matter. Springsteen has recorded old songs for new albums before, and if the tracks on High Hopes were as vital as, say, “Independence Day,” a Darkness outtake that ended up on the The River, all would be well. But the truth is that Springsteen is no longer writing as much A+ material as he was in the late 1970s, so now seems like precisely the wrong time to assemble an entire LP from recent additions to the slush pile.
Listen to the new disc and you’ll see what I mean. Of course not every album Bruce released prior to High Hopes was amazing. But you always got the sense that they were trying to be amazing albums. High Hopes feels like it’s just trying to be an album. The title track (again, a cover) is an aimless Bo Diddley raveup. “Just Like Fire Would” (another cover) comes way too close to John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” for comfort. “Heaven’s Wall” and “This is Your Sword” are fine, but neither one is as sharp or urgent as the similarly gospel- and Gaelic-inflected tracks on Wrecking Ball. And wherever Tom Morello shows up—the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist subbed for Steven Van Zandt on the Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour, then started recording with Springsteen—he makes matters worse. By slathering his flashy, squealing, heavily processed licks all over “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” he transforms what could have been the two strongest tracks on the album into hair-metal indulgences that sonically betray the somber gravity of their own lyrics. The live version of the former and the acoustic version of the latter are much better than these new renditions—so what’s the point?
I’m sure that some fans are fuming right now. How dare I even ask that question? More Bruce is always better than less Bruce, they’d say. That’s the point. Or, as a commenter named Peter recently wrote on the American Songwriter website, “What relevance or merit do so called reviewers have when grading or assessing the work of an artist with the history and achievements of a Bruce Springsteen? Won an Oscar or two? Collected more Grammys than U2, Madonna, and Michael Jackson put together? Written any decent songs lately? I mean, really! The notion that an artist of Springsteen's caliber can be reviewed is silly!”
If jamming with Tom Morello on a bunch of castoffs and covers is good enough for Peter, then fine. But as a lifelong Springsteen fanatic, it’s not good enough for me—and more importantly, I don’t think it’s good enough for Springsteen. Telling The Boss he can do no wrong—pretty much the default critical position ever since he edged into elder statesmen territory around the turn of the century—is no longer doing him any favors. Age and accolades tend to breed complacency, but Springsteen’s signature as an artist has always been his ambition to make big, beautiful, transcendent albums—and the discipline to follow through. High Hopes falls short on both counts. Will I still listen to the CD, or at least to the tracks I like? Of course. But I think it’s unfair—to us as fans, and ultimately to Bruce—not to remind him that he’s at his best when his own hopes are a little higher.