I’m not sure I’m capable of writing a review of Bruce Springsteen’s latest release. There’s one fact that may disqualify me from rendering a true and proper piece of rock criticism. No, it’s not that I count Lester Bangs as one of my heroes. No, it’s not that I never saw an E Street show in 1978. It’s not even that I have a framed picture of Bruce and Patti’s daughter Jessica in her dressage/tutu costume. No, the heart of the mater comes down to one simple fact:
I’m a Kool Aid drinker.
Yes, it’s true. I listen to Bruce Springsteen songs and find that…I like them. There hasn’t been a song he’s put out since 1987 or so that I’ve had much of a problem with. For that, I have been labeled as a Kool Aid drinker, or what used to be called: a fan.
So keep this in mind if you decide to read on, as there will be no whining about the presence of Tom Morello, no ripping Bruce a new one for employing the occasional drum loop, no excessive kvetching over the lyrics. I am only interested in who Bruce Springsteen is in the present. That he is not the Bruce of 1978 or 1984 or even 2007, this is no surprise.
So what to make of an record that’s comprised of covers, updates of known material, new songs, and older tracks that didn’t fit on previous records? Some have a name for it: a contractual obligation album. Me? I just think it’s a big ball of fun.
Springsteen has been finding creative spark in new places of late, the Wrecking Ball tour of Australia being one of them. With Tom Morello sitting in for Steve Van Zandt, Bruce ends up recording the title track (a cover of a song by The Havalinas) as well as “Just Like Fire Would” by the Aussie punk band The Saints. I immediately loved the energy of the percussive drive and crackling horn stabs on “High Hopes,” while the later songs reminds the ear of a boozy singalong from The River era. Also included here are proper studio versions of “American Skin (41 Shots)” and a blast furnace take on the electrified “Ghost Of Tom Joad.” There’s plenty of fodder here for those tired of Mr. Morello, but this is what Bruce wants — and if Bruce wants walls of guitar brutality? I’ll take it.
Speaking of brutality, Springsteen unleashes an emotional bomb with “The Wall.” A touching remembrance of a fallen Viet Nam vet, the elegiac nature of the song is bolstered by the organ of the late Dan Federici and by some atmospheric trumpet in the outro. It’s a kindred spirit to “Racing In The Street,” though obviously with different subject matter.
There are plenty of moments of pure sonic pleasures on this album, from Clarence Clemons’ solo on the gangster fever dream that is “Harry’s Place” to the country folk-meets-Aaron Copeland landscape of “Hunter of Invisible Game” to the modern gospel rave-up of “Heaven’s Wall.”
Of course, with all of thematic import and seriousness, it would make sense that I am most drawn to the mid-record song pair of “Frankie Fell In Love”/”This Is Your Sword.” “Frankie” is just built for a Bruce/Steve concert duet while “Sword” brings a Celtic anthem sort of feel. There’s also a loose coupling between the songs, with the former parsing new love with clever (and hilarious) word play while the latter uses the perfect distillation of: “This is the power of love revealed.”
High Hopes closes with what some fans have described as a “totally pointless” cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.” Since I missed out on the Devils And Dust tour (Bruce closed with show with this song), I’ve not had an opportunity to grow tired of this song. For this album, it seems quite appropriate here, giving some closure as we transition out of the dark (and magnificent) “The Wall.”
Or…I could just be a Kool Aid drinker.
P.S. I don’t really have that Jessica Springsteen photo
P.P.S. My favorite Kool Aid flavor is watermelon