My introduction to the music of Bruce Springsteen was in 1978, at the release of the album Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was drawn in to the powerful and complex expressions of the fears, anxieties, and hopes of a generation searching for meaning and identity in the 1970s. That led me next to Springsteen’s earlier and, according to some, greatest album Born to Run; this too was filled with themes of hope and longing, with songs of people yearning for meaning and redemption. And on his newest album, High Hopes, while Springsteen moves in some different musical directions, he has not strayed far from his original themes. This time, however, there is an angrier edge, a touch of hopelessness despite its title, and perhaps a much more raw longing for the hope to which he aspires; this edgier or rawer element comes through in the choice of songs, the lyrics, and especially the music.
This is the album which some reviewers have said should not have been made; as one reviewer noted, it is simply a collection of covers and leftovers from the last decade or so, and such, it feels “like a musical tag sale.” But it has not been unusual for Springsteen to reach back to earlier material for release, either in original or re-worked formats. And this music, some of which reaches back as far as the 1970s, is held together by its darker hues and more urgent longing for life. Typically for Springsteen, this is not just a collection of outtakes and remakes: it is a story that moves from beginning to end, and needs to be heard in the order in which it appears on the album. A collection of songs left over from previous recording sessions, plus the addition of “American Skin” and a remake of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” originally twenty songs were considered for inclusion; that list was whittled down to the current twelve, which move from despair through bitterness, to longing and hope in a variety of musical styles that nonetheless have an integrity of theme. More than a tag sale, this is vintage Springsteen, given new life and energy, and is perhaps a more urgent expression of longing than that expressed in his early albums Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.
High Hopes is a collection of material mostly recorded recently with guest guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame. Unlike most of Springsteen’s albums, which were recorded in marathon sessions, with repeats and retakes of songs with different arrangements, this one was recorded song by song in places as close together as New Jersey and New York, and as far apart as Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, and Australia. Springsteen’s own children provide backing vocals on one track, and the great sounds of the late Clarence Clemons on saxophone and the late Danny Federici on organ are included in two tracks recorded almost ten years ago. Thematically, the album holds together musically as well as lyrically; three of the songs are covers by Springsteen, but given his own stamp musically by driving guitar sounds played against the sounds of other guitars and instruments. It impels the listener to enter into the energy, the anger, and the bitterness that still wants to find hope. From the opening title track, “High Hopes,” we hear musically the expression of someone reaching rock bottom: “I wanna look in their eyes and know/they stand a chance/Give me help, give me strength.” The inclusion of the electrified and electrifying version of his folk ballad “The Ghost of Tom Joad” creates the sense of urgency for social change, redemption, transformation; the urgency is accentuated by the voice of Morello and his wailing guitar solo at the end, tailing off into uncertainty and even despair, although the sounds seem a little more clinical and contrived than the live versions which have become so well known over the last five years.
While Wrecking Ball, released in the spring of 2012, had a more pronounced edge both musically and lyrically, driving the album forward with march, dance, and celebration, High Hopes sings from a place of desperation, capturing the longing of his albums of the 1970s. While “The Ghost of Tom Joad” seems to be the heart of this collection of songs of sorrow and longing, the elegy to Springsteen’s friend killed in Vietnam in “The Wall”—a tribute to the Vietnam Veterans Monument—may well prove to be the true heart and soul of this album; the music, and Springsteen’s regretful and sorrowful voice, suggest a sincerity of longing. With “The Wall,” and even a substandard version of “American Skin,” it seems this album is about wrapping up loose ends, giving voice to things hinted at before, and letting loose with true feelings. Perhaps it is not a remainders sale so much as a culmination.
The musical arrangements come from a more recent Springsteen in many ways, suggestive of rock, gospel, blues, as well as folk and roots traditions, and overall the tone suggests an album of hope in the face of disaster, as in The Rising, Springsteen’s post-9/11 album. However, there is a deeper undercurrent of music and meaning here. It seems that even as Springsteen has matured as a poet and a musician, he has also come full circle, returning to all the roots of the rock ‘n’ roll sound, the rebellious spirit, and the restlessness of the people about whom and for whom he sings. He invites us throughout to touch the seamier and grittier side of life, to know that life can filled with pain and sorrow; ultimately, though, in the messy stuff of life and death, he exhorts us to open up our hearts, dry our eyes, and dream, baby, dream.