So do I have High Hopes for Bruce Springsteen's new record? New Jersey's favorite son (sorry Bon Jovi and Sinatra) has released quite an interesting mix of songs for his 2014 studio album. We get covers, "re-imaginings" and lots of loud guitar. We have songs that were outtakes from earlier sessions, Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine making his presence known beyond just standing in for Steve Van Zant on a recent tour, and even some playing from dearly departed ex-E Street Band members. The man himself says, "The best way to describe this record is that it's a bit of an anomaly but not much. I don't really work linearly like a lot of people do."
The title track, written by Tim Scott McConnell, is an "Iko Iko" chunky type of acoustic guitar opener with the Boss doing his muscle best to get us declaring - whatever it is we should declare. It's a big tune with a catchy chorus, accenting horns and a consistent tom beat. A hell of a mover, Springsteen recorded and released a version of this tune on his 1996's Blood Brothers EP. "Harry's Place" — recorded around the time of the Rising album — reveals more of that distorted guitar and some metallic burping behind the singer's vocal and some "F" bombing. This one has also got a vocal loop ala Tom Waits (we'll see more of that later). The Boss might have overstayed his welcome at Harry's as the tune would be more effective shortened, but then again this is one of two songs here that feature dearly departed E-Streeters sax man Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici.
A truly interesting (and long) read of the infamous "American Skin (41 Shots)" shows up. There's another vocal loop in the mix, and things get loud midway, but Springsteen sings wonderfully and the production is top notch, no matter what you do to this song (extending it in this case with a great dramatic middle lead). Still, it feels like Springsteen is expending a lot of time and energy for no real reason, sorry to say. There's more of that metallic backbeat stuff — this time with banjo and light "oohs" as Springsteen sings through an interesting filter at the beginning of "Down In The Hole." Drummer Max Weinberg allows an "I'm On Fire"-like snare beat with an accordion behind the whole. It's another older song (from the middle of this decade), but classic Bruce al the way.
"Heaven's Wall" is a percussion-driven mélange with a gospel roll, and Springsteen eating his words just as he sings them. The back vocals certainly kick ass, and in comes that incendiary guitar again. The ending has Springsteen countering his guitar and cutting off the percussion. I love "Hunter of Invisible Game' with its sweeping 40s soundtrack movie strings and the vocals great, soft with that country twang one only gets from living years in south Jersey(?) and the drama of words only Springsteen can link together to create such rich images. An Americana feel like this works, as it does for so few others, even older singers.
An electric version of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" builds slowly into full-blown rockin' affair. Informed as this version is by not just Morello's incendiary guitar strokes but his singing, I really do like this updating. The song was actually covered by Rage Against The Machine so Morello's trilling guitar antics, vocal and the entire concoction seems to work beautifully. "The Wall" is Springsteen at his absolute best. Just the man singing with his guitar, some soft electric piano, subtle backing vocal and keys from Federici (the other song he's on in this collection) about something truly American and of his generation. The lyric here is chill-inducing, as much a song about a visit to the Vietnam Memorial as homage to a Jersey Shore musician Walter Cichon who led a band called The Motfits, a huge early influence on Springsteen, who died in the war. By the time the bugle comes in, you're about done. You get one song like this on a full collection of 12 songs count yourself lucky.
A harmonium sounding backing pushes behind the Elvis imitation on the ender, his send-up of another cover, Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream." With far-off slicing guitar bubbling in the background, the tune opens up slowly — as we assume it will — as the Boss drops the Elvis and a rain-on-tin-roof percussion and strings swell. A piano enters, reminiscent of those classic Springsteen compositions we can no longer truly touch. Somehow this one, not even one penned by the singer, might be the best of the set. Do I have High Hopes for Bruce Springsteen's new record? Yes, pretty much save a song or two, I do. It's not your usual release from the Boss, but at least he's still making them and caring to even rework a tune or two, just to make it interesting and different.
~ Ralph Greco, Jr.