I saw rock 'n' roll's past, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. A singer once famously dubbed "the future" of his genre by his eventual manager, the Boss across four decades has become an icon, a musical force, a voice of moral authority and, above all, a consistently confident performer, bandleader, songwriter and collaborator.
Over the years, Springsteen has won Grammys, feted presidents with his hearty husk, worked with Pete Seeger, examined Irish music, written "Born to Run" and a few dozen other stone cold man-rock classics, earning him an army of devoted followers who treat him as a compass. At times, I've been one of them.
As anyone who's ever endured Springsteen's album "Human Touch" can attest, though, his genius is fallible, and his latest album, "High Hopes," suggests a past threatening to overtake him.
A dozen songs culled from a decade's worth of unreleased material, his 18th studio album is like a slide show, offering previously showcased material and extant studio recordings. It also includes covers of synth-punk band Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" and post-punk band the Saints' "Just Like Fire Would."
In doing so, the album not only presents an overview of his last decade of stylistic accents and inclinations — a banjo here, a gospel choir there, brass punctuation, many Tom Morello guitar solos — but it also gathers music that hasn't landed on one of his Columbia releases over the last decade-plus.
If "High Hopes" were a new model year car, it would be a midsize six cylinder with factory hubcaps, good gas mileage and just enough spunk to zip past the wood-paneled minivans on the two-lane. Something that looks pretty good, runs extremely well and hums, but certainly isn't going to turn heads of Jersey girls combing hair in rearview mirrors on the boulevard (let alone the boys trying to look so hard).
"Harry's Place," for example, feels like mechanized replica of a Boss song, typically well-played and arranged but forgettable. It's an outtake from the 2002 sessions for "The Rising," and Springsteen was right to cut it then. "When Harry speaks it's Harry's streets," he sings of a grumpy bar owner. "In Harry's house it's Harry's roads/You don't wanna be around, brother, when Harry scolds."
Similarly, "Down in the Hole" co-opts much of the title of a perfectly great Tom Waits song in service of a one-dimensional lyrical portrait of a lovelorn gravedigger "buried to my heart here in this hurt." The lyric is rescued, though, by a surreal orchestral arrangement that suggests the score to a John Ford western or an Aaron Copland diversion.
A number of songs on "High Hopes" feature Springsteen's most recent touring instrumental muse, guitarist Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave). Here, he tears through an electrified version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," a tag team with Springsteen that peaks with a wailing Morello guitar solo. The song has been a highlight of recent shows — but this recording doesn't similarly levitate. On "American Skin (41 Shots)," however, Morello injects fury into Springsteen's oft-performed song about the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo.
As a player, Morello can be a six-stringed Glen Hansard, though — an artist so excited with his own powerful technique that after a few astounding runs it starts to overwhelm — and then grate. At his loudest, as on the otherwise superior opener "High Hopes," Morello broadsides the E Street Band with a stylistic collision that's abrasive and confusing.
A few interior accents offer glimpses into Springsteen's more understated muse. The best of them, "Hunter of Invisible Game," is a grand departure, and a perfectly realized 4:40.
A haunting meditation on faith, longing and intimacy, "Invisible Game" sees Springsteen singing of a burning scarecrow and wandering confusion. "Strength is vanity and time is illusion/I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion," he sings. "Your skin touches mine, what else to explain?/I am the hunter of invisible game."
Any artist who pens such a lyric has earned the right to drop a few duds from time to time. "High Hopes" has its share. When your Springsteen itch needs scratching, only a few of these even three months from now are going to pass muster. But it's not like you'll be starved for choices.
Two and a half stars
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