Thursday, January 9, 2014

Inverse “Live Album:” High Hopes Has Bruce Springsteen Compiling Songs Of American Desperation And Desolation.

The Good: Generally good production, Most of the lyrics, Duration.
The Bad: Some annoyingly drawn out instrumental moments, Nothing impressive on the vocals.
The Basics: The two-disc High Hopes illustrates well that Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band can still rock, even if the material is culled and reworked from their b-sides!

Live albums have a tendency to suffer when I review them. The reason for this is very simple: on nine out of ten (or an even worse proportion!), songs are presented by their original artists with minimal reinterpretation and crowd noises that distract from what the performers are trying to do. If the live versions are culled from different albums, they have a tendency to be the same or similar to the ones on an artist’s “Greatest Hits” album. So, I am usually left with the question, “What’s the point of getting a new version with more superfluous noise if there is an album that has all the songs in the way the artist originally intended them?!” I mention this at the outset of my review of the latest Bruce Springsteen album, High Hopes, because I find myself faced with a legitimate construction of the inverse: for High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen has culled through his live songs, concert tracks and b-sides and reworked and re-recorded them as studio tracks.

The result is a surprisingly cohesive (for most of it) album. Unfortunately, it also seems the Bruce Springsteen’s tendency for the b-sides, remixes and songs he had only previously recorded as live versions was to write and perform songs that are largely depressing. With three songs opening the album that chronicle the depression, failings, and disintegration of America today, High Hopes is almost a concept album of the struggles people today face. The thing is, despite being culled from different time periods in Bruce Springsteen’s career, High Hopes holds together much better than most “live” albums or albums of remixes. The result is that Springsteen has reason to expect that 2014 will be a very good year for him.

With a dozen songs clocking out at 56:24, High Hopes is mostly the work of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Springsteen wrote nine of the twelve songs, but three of the songs (“High Hopes,” “Just Like Fire Would,” and “Dream Baby Dream”) are covers. Springsteen provides all of the lead vocals and plays piano, guitar, bass, banjo, drums, and several other instruments over the course of the album. As one of three co-producers on the album, it seems very much like this was Springsteen’s musical vision being accurately represented.

Vocally, there are no surprises on High Hopes. Bruce Springsteen presents his characteristic gravelly, mid-range vocals. He sings all of the songs so the lyrics may be clearly understood and there is generally a straightforward, literal approach to the songs, as opposed to Springsteen infusing the lines with a lot of vocal emotion. The obvious exceptions are on “American Skin (41 Shots)” where Springsteen presents the lines with a softness that makes the song all the more haunting and “Frankie Fell In Love,” where Springsteen makes his vocals a bit more energetic and happy.

Instrumentally, High Hopes has a good mix of tracks that are very much the embodiment of a full rock band sound (which is, admittedly, atypical in today’s music). The guitar, bass, and drums blend with pianos, keyboards and the occasional saxophone. Almost all of the songs have a hummable tune and the anthemic tracks are appropriately energizing, calling the listener to action. While the album starts slow and melancholy, this seems to be a concept album about rising out of the muck, fighting for a better life (“This Is Your Sword”) and ending up at a better place (“Dream Baby Dream”). Musically, the album works well toward that crescendo. The only songs that musically stands out for any sort of problematic reason are “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and “Heaven’s Wall.” On “Heaven’s Wall,” the musical accompaniment seems gratuitous and distracting, drawn out in a showy way that does not serve the song. The excessive guitars are revisited on this album’s version of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” where Springsteen and Tom Morello drag out their electric guitars as if to prove definitively to listeners that they actually know how to play them (we never doubted!). The extended extro to “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” is bloated and irksome to listen to, especially the more one listens to High Hopes.

Lyrically, High Hopes is a good blend of musical storysongs and political anthems. Springsteen is known for creating vivid musical slices of life in his songs while focusing on powerful emotions and/or social problems. On High Hopes, that tradition is carried on by songs like “Harry’s Place.” Springsteen creates a very realistic sense of emotion and setting when he sings “Downtown hipsters drinking up the drug line / Down in the kitchen working in the coal mine / Got a special sin, mister, you can't quite confess / Messy little problem, maybe baby need a new dress / Razor-back diamond you shine too hard / Need a hammer help you handle a little trouble in your backyard / Bring it on down to Harry's Place” (“Harry’s Place”). There is a sense of storytelling in Bruce Springsteen’s lines that are distinctly his own (despite how some might be tempted to compare him to Bob Dylan).

One of the gems I did not recall hearing on other Bruce Springsteen albums was “Down In The Hole.” With lines like “Dark and bloody autumn pierces my heart / The memory of your kiss tears me apart / The sky above is turning, the world below's gone gray / I thought that I could turn and walk away / Fire keeps on burning, and I'm working in the cold / Down in the hole” (“Down In The Hole”), Bruce Springsteen reminds listeners just how much of a poet he is. Springsteen writes some of the most beautiful lines about angst, loss, and poverty that I have ever heard and “Down In The Hole” is one of his most potent auditory paintings.

Of course, Bruce Springsteen is well-known for political songs and while the lyrics to “American Skin (41 Shots)” are entirely unsurprising (the song was presented on prior albums), the sound of it on High Hopes is. “American Skin (41 Shots)” is Springsteen’s masterwork on gun violence and race relations in the United States. He sings his cautionary tale: “Lena gets her son ready for school / She says, ‘On these streets, Charles / You've got to understand the rules / If an officer stops you, promise me you'll always be polite / And that you'll never ever run away / Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight’" (“American Skin (41 Shots)”) and on prior albums, the song seemed repetitive and overbearing, but on High Hopes it seems pointed and as if it is delivering the most poignant representation of how these problems do not go away on their own.

Ultimately, High Hopes is smart, political and well-produced: everything one hopes for from a Bruce Springsteen album. The album holds together very well over multiple listens, which is a rarity for a compilation album; maybe more artists should make their “assembled” or “recycled” albums the way Springsteen does!

The high point is “Down In The Hole” (though calling the best track on High Hopes is tougher than on most Springsteen albums!), the low point is the repetitive “Heaven’s Wall.”

For other works by Bruce Springsteen, please check out my reviews of:
Born In The U.S.A.
Greatest Hits
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Live In New York
The Rising
Devils & Dust
We Shall Overcome - The Seeger Sessions
Working On A Dream


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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