Music Reviews
High Hopes

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes

(Columbia) Rating - 5/10

Regardless of the quality of the musical content, calling an album such a name can only open yourself up for criticism. If the contained music falls below the expected and usual standard then the criticism can be expected tenfold. All the mistakes laid bare, feasted on by the critics as if it were a carcass to some lucky scavengers. Mr. Springsteen needs no introduction. Love him or loathe him he has been around a long time, made some era defining music and built an army of fans through either his big band rock sound, his fragile acoustic escapades or the combination of both, almost a Jekyll and Hyde of popular music. It would be hard not to find anything remarkable in his back catalogue.

That brings us to this stopgap release. So, nothing here is new, not really. Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) is on board, turning some of these incarnations into loud, snarling beasts of Springsteen's songs that mostly figured on his studio albums from the last decade or so. It's an odd way to fill the silence between studio albums though, in what could be a dry patch for the songwriter. As a performer, it's Bruce showing off his arsenal and he probably enjoyed the performances greatly, seeing them as a valuable enough part of his current persona that the world needed to be given this record with these 12 versions.

So the growing void between original albums has been filled, but is it any good? It's unlikely to satisfy anyone for too long. He has much better records, and better versions of the songs herein, even. There are moments of euphoria littered throughout, but the overriding sensation is one of dullness. The big arrangements and guitar solos cannot disguise that the content lacks passion and soul. It just feels like a man on autopilot. It's hard to see what kind of statement is meant to be made, but, for example, the once tender beauty of a past masterpiece such as The Ghost of Tom Joad is assassinated in a 7-plus minute rock version here. The entire heart of the song trampled underfoot.

It's big and bold, and the ambition is here, but it feels flat and the 'high hopes' sadly are not even close to being met. It's almost as if the loudness, the band, the backing singers and big guitar solos are there to cover the lack of newness or classic tunes. Bruce's voice sounds strained too, but not in a good way as sometimes it did in the past. It's as though he is reaching for past heights and tragically missing them by a mile. It isn't a torturous listen, but it isn't impressive either, especially for one who has made so much thought provoking music in the past. "Over rated?" I hear you ask. Based on this record you would have to say "yes!"

Down In The Hole is a highlight. It's minimal for the first half, then when the band joins him it maintains the delicate nature of the song and lends to making it even more sublime. A wonderful track. Heaven's Wall is great, too. It has a sense of unity, of a collective group of musicians playing together, for each other. The guitar solo almost topples it from grace, and its hard to see how everyone thought some of the ideas here were good ones.

Too many songs disappoint, though. American Skin (41 Shots) starts beautifully. His voice is fragile and somehow reassuring (this is when Bruce is at his best), and it's the first beautiful moment on the record, but it builds, and then it builds some more before exploding into a classic rock sound that abandons the fragility and replaces it with rock-by-numbers commercial big guns firing it towards its end. It's the kind of achievement that anyone with a rock chord guidebook could replicate or create on their own, and it has such little appeal for those who like a challenging aural feast.

In summary, it's a grave disappointment. There was never a need to dress up some of these tracks as they have been (best example, see the aforementioned The Ghost of Tom Joad). It's easy to understand the need to transform songs, restlessly play with them, let them evolve, but sometimes it feels like a crime to change such great music beyond what it actually seemed to say and stand for in the first place. Nobody is denying that Bruce Springsteen is a talented man, but this is not a representation of that; this does not meet those 'high hopes,' and this isn't a satisfactory filling of that void. However, and as always, you can't help but wonder what comes next. This much is true, though...he needs to prove his worth all over again, as Dylan continually does, if he is going to talk about 'great expectations' in album titles!