Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest storytellers in rock, whether taking on racism, Vietnam, 9/11 or the eternal victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he also remains a misunderstood presence. “Born in the USA” was memorably perceived as a hymn of praise, when it was actually an indictment of the way veterans had been treated. The same goes for “The Rising,” misjudged by some as a patriotic album when many critical undertones were present.
Now, Springsteen is issuing a new album — High Hopes is due January 14, 2014 — for the first time in his career which includes a series of cover songs and updates. How would this one be perceived when the kind of concepts that typically run through his studio efforts is missing? That worry turns out to be a valid one, as Springsteen songs reach his usual high standards but unfortunately none of them match. Don’t get your hopes up when it comes to High Hopes; it’s best described as a collection of very good songs rather than a coherent follow up to his best work.
The title-trck advance single, a rhythmic offering which spreads good cheer, has the feel of an instant concert favorite. Tom Morello, guitarist with Rage Against the Machine, guests with Springsteen’s E Street Band to great effect — sparking “The Ghost of Tom Joad” with furious fireworks. He’s turned a whisper song into a bombastic work, without any loss of quality. “American Skin (41 Shots),” previously only available in a live performance, is greatly improved on the one hand without the audience’s inappropriate cheering — though, on the other, some of the spontaneous magic of the song gets lost.
None of these tracks, by themselves, could be described as lesser Springsteen works. The Boss has never really written many of those, anyway. And the presence of Tom Morello is a big plus. But High Hopes, in the end, sounds like what it is: A group of quickly collected individual moments, interesting but unrelated. As with “Born in the USA” and “The Rising,” we shouldn’t try to make it something it’s not.
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