Bruce Springsteen, 'High Hopes': Track-By-Track Review

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
High Hopes
Producers: Ron Aniello, Brendan O'Brien

Label: Columbia
Release Date: Jan. 14

"High Hopes" is Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album. In a first for the artist, the record is a collection of cover songs previously performed live, originals never recorded in the studio and older songs dusted off and reanimated. Backing Springsteen on this release is the E Street Band -- including appearances by the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici -- as well as Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman, Audioslave, Rage Against The Machine). A press release also credits (but does not specify) "many additional players."

Morello joined forces with Springsteen when he temporarily filled in for Steven Van Zandt during the band's 2013 Australian tour, when Van Zandt was away due to filming commitments for his Netflix Original series,"Lilyhammer." In the album's liner notes, Springsteen specifically credits Morello's influence on this record: "Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level. Thanks for the inspiration Tom." Indeed, Morello's fingerprints are all over the album, from the blistering, electrified rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and trademark solos in "American Skin (41 Shots)" to his very definite contribution to the"Rising" outtake "Harry's Place." In total, his contributions appear on eight out of the 12 tracks on the album.

Although on the outside this might seem like an unlikely match, Morello's very familiar with and sympathetic to the repertoire because he is an enthusiastic, self-identified fan. His contributions feel inventive, versatile and natural, like an extension of the direction Springsteen was already moving in; he can attack the song in true Morello fashion, contribute tasteful rhythm guitar -- or a combination of the two. Importantly, he challenges Springsteen, both musically and emotionally. Morello's role in the E Street Band feels similar to that of avant-garde noise-monger Nels Cline when he joined Wilco.

"High Hopes" was produced by Ron Aniello, with additional production credits going to former producer Brendan O'Brien on four of the tracks ("Harry's Place," "Down In The Hole," "Hunter of Invisible Game," and "Heaven's Wall," the latter also shared with Aniello). Aniello's production work definitely enhances and does not distract from or obscure the tracks.

Check out Billboard's track-by-track review of Springsteen's latest full-length.

Album Version

1. HIGH HOPES - First recorded by Springsteen in 1995 and featured as part of the 1996 "Blood Brothers" DVD chronicling the E Street Band's studio reunion, this lively rockabilly track was originally written and performed by Tim Scott McConnell of the Havalinas. The ‘95 version was recorded as a more straight-ahead rocker with vivid vocal harmonies. The 2014 studio version adds broader, richer instrumentation (due in no small part to the E Street Band's current 18-member roster [19 when you add Morello]) to the mix.

Springsteen's voice is as much of a natural for this song as it was in the '90s, wrapping his distinctive baritone around the lyrics, which resonate with many of the themes touched on by Springsteen in his own material:

Tell me someone now, what's the price
I wanna buy some time and maybe live my life
I wanna have a wife, I wanna have some kids
I wanna look in their eyes and know they'll stand a chance

The song is a perfect showcase for the full-power 2014 E Street Band, from the E Street Horns holding down the melody in the front, to the E Street Choir standing their ground in the back, notable piano work from Roy Bittan underpinning the tune alongside Springsteen's own acoustic, and then Morello's distinctive guitar leads and soaring solos on top of it all.

2. HARRY'S PLACE - Recorded in 2002 with the E Street Band, this "Rising"-era outtake was one of two songs that didn't make that album's final cut. In an interview with Ted Koppel, Springsteen read some of the song's lyrics (which are pretty much identical from the version that made it onto "High Hopes") and shared that the song was left off the record because Springsteen didn't believe it fit thematically.

Listening to the track now, it's easy to agree with Springsteen's assessment. The track's not lacking in quality, but it does touch on themes (deception, power, small-town secrets) that are covered on other "Rising" songs, and this particular story of the gangsters hanging out at "Harry's Place" would have taken the listener out of the very careful thematic arc that was constructed by Springsteen on that particular record. 

The element in "Harry's Place" that immediately grabs one's attention is the saxophone, which could not be played by anyone other than Clarence Clemons. His sound is distinctive and familiar, and its presence here creates a poignant reaction of recognition and regret in the listener. Then there's Morello's guitar work, which stands out in similar distinctive fashion throughout the entire track, weaving around the vocals and instrumentation. It's a less direct sonic attack than most of his other work on the record, but fits in seamlessly. 

3. AMERICAN SKIN (41 SHOTS) - "American Skin (41 Shots)" was written in 2000 in response to the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York City, and came to most people's attention when Springsteen performed it during his tour-ending 10-night stand at Madison Square Garden. Critics of the song saw it as an attack on the New York City Police Department, and the MSG shows were briefly marred by boycotts and protests by the NYPD and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. 

Live in 2001

Although Springsteen gave no interviews regarding the song at the time, he later described the thought process behind the track in his published lyric collection, "Songs." "Though the song was critical, it was not ‘anti-police' as some thought. The first voice you hear after the intro is from the policeman's point of view," Springsteen said. "...I worked hard for a balanced voice. I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted to help people see the other guy's point of view." 

"American Skin" has reappeared in setlists in the years since in response to current events, such as a specific dedication to Trayvon Martin during a 2012 performance. Live, it's a song of tremendous power both vocally and instrumentally. While nothing can come close to the majesty of a live E Street Band building into the impassioned explosion on the bridge, and then later in its reprise, this version definitely does it justice. Tom Morello plays his part by matching the E Street Band's intensity with his solo, which is powerful, lyrical and expansive. It's easy to understand why Springsteen included this track when talking about the record in the liner notes, saying the songs were "among the best of my writing and deserved a proper studio recording." 

The track is further highlighted by some distortion on the vocals, straight out of the experimentation that was a highlight of the "Devils & Dust" tour, where Springsteen worked with textures, instruments and techniques that were new and unusual for him. The addition of these elements to the studio version would be tricky live, but on record help set the tone and maintain the sonic spaces that allow the song to expand to its true emotive depth. 

Live in Australia, 2013

4. JUST LIKE FIRE WOULD - Also emerging from the Australian tour, this number written by Chris Bailey of The Saints (who Springsteen states were one of his favorite early Australian punk bands) was performed once and then recorded as part of a mid-tour recording session in Sydney. Springsteen's rendition of the track as a straightforward rocker is mostly true, both emotionally and musically, to Bailey's original. It's another great snapshot of the 2013 E Street Band, with a definite horn presence (the mid-song solo is almost Beatles-esque) and classic Steve Van Zandt harmonies backing Springsteen. 

5. DOWN IN THE HOLE - Another outtake from the recording sessions for 2002's "The Rising," the track opens with Patti Scialfa's distinctive harmonies, which continue throughout the song. Also of particular note is the organ solo carrying the unmistakable feel of the late Danny Federici. The track is sparse, haunting, and heart-rendingly evocative. Many of the lyrics and leitmotifs are directly or indirectly echoed in other tracks on the album, which might explain Springsteen's decision to omit it from the record back in 2002. 

6. HEAVEN'S WALL - Prior to "Wrecking Ball," Springsteen claimed he was working on a gospel album, which was never released. Two tracks -- "Shackled and Drawn" and "Rocky Ground" -- made it onto "Wrecking Ball," and it certainly sounds like "Heaven's Wall" could have originated from that project as well, given the upfront choral vocal components and directly biblical lyrics. Tom Morello comes in toward the end, his guitar work -- both solo (including a too-brief exchange of riffs) and rhythm guitar -- is absolutely appropriate and very organic. It's a lively, fascinating, complex track and one of the standouts on this release.

7. FRANKIE FELL IN LOVE - This song sounds like Springsteen taking the best parts of the Seeger Sessions Band -- the informality and looseness -- and working them into an original song for the benefit of the full range and talent of the core E Street Band. It's country-flavored without feeling contrived, poppy and swinging but very polished, and extremely memorable.  It's fun, it's playful, it should have been the first single and would be a natural, fantastic addition to the E Street Band's live repertoire.

8. THIS IS YOUR SWORD - This track is a more traditional sounding number, incorporating many of the Gaelic elements of which Springsteen's become fond in recent years. "This Is Your Sword" is a straight-ahead ballad with strong vocals and powerful instrumentation -- with a banjo and some bagpipes hanging around, too. This is the only track on which Max Weinberg does not play drums; instead, that role is filled by veteran sessionman Josh Freese.

9. HUNTER OF INVISIBLE GAME - A gentle, mid-tempo ballad, this track is an allegory filled with biblical imagery. It's similar in theme to a few of the tracks from 2012's "Wrecking Ball" but sonically has more in common with 2009's "Working On A Dream" and is likely an outtake from that project. Tom Morello has a guitar credit and his work integrates well with the rest of the instrumentation. Springsteen's voice draws the listener through the story of "travelers in the wasteland" (as he relates in the liner notes) with guitars, a rhythm section, some strings and backing vocals.

Tom Joad Live

10. THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD - In 2008, Tom Morello appeared onstage with the E Street Band for the first time, performing a hybrid version of the title track from Springsteen's 1995 acoustic solo album, which merged the ferocity of the Rage Against the Machine cover with the depth of the E Street version. Morello has performed this song with the band many times since then, and always appears to be inspired by being onstage with Bruce and the band -- and they meet his energy in kind. He trades verses and shares harmonies with Springsteen, and shines on both rhythm and lead, the latter of which features those now-distinctive modulations, blazing like rockets alongside the E Street Band.

It would be tough to capture all of this on record, but they managed to do it and then some: loud, and fierce, with a raw musical power and emotion that hits right in the middle of one's chest. It is the most powerful and successful track on "High Hopes."

11. THE WALL - Originally debuted live in 2003 and performed again in 2005, this song is a tribute to childhood friends and fellow fledgling Jersey Shore musicians who went off to Vietnam and didn't come home, inspired by a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Early versions of the track were heartfelt but uneven; the theme was clearly important to Springsteen, but the song definitely felt raw and unfinished in its limited live performances.

Clearly, those issues have been resolved with the recording that made its way onto "High Hopes." Although the lyrics are essentially the same as they were when the track was first debuted, the performance is more intense because Springsteen's emotional focus feels solid and more centered. While his vocals are still the focal point of this track -- he's telling a story that's important to him -- the slight presence of the rhythm section and piano give the track depth and solemnity. Danny Federici adds a quietly powerful organ solo in the break, and both organ and trumpet (the latter adding a slight martial touch) lead the track to its end. 

12. DREAM BABY DREAM - Springsteen's translation of this track by Alan Vega and Martin Rev of NYC punk frontrunners Suicide first appeared during the 2005 tour supporting "Devils & Dust." Supported by harmonium and tape loops, this dark, dense, electronic composition was transformed into a warm and heartfelt ballad, usually in the encore slot. 

Dream Live

The studio version of "Dream Baby Dream" is cleaner and more polished than in concert, but still embodies the emotion and expansiveness of the live performance. Springsteen played the more recent version of the track in November 2013 at the "Stand Up For Heroes" benefit in New York City, and the studio version was used as the soundtrack to an official 'thank you' video released in October to thank Springsteen fans for supporting the 2012 & 2013 "Wrecking Ball" tour.

-- 

Springsteen and the E Street Band kick off 2014 by traveling to South Africa for the first time to perform three dates in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg in January, followed by 13 shows in Australia and New Zealand in February. There are no U.S. or European tour dates scheduled at this time.