The Album Collection #23: 2014, Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes

by Charlie_East_West on January 21, 2014

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Congratulations to Bruce Springsteen. His new album High Hopes is currently number one in the album charts in numerous countries – including the UK.

Springsteen’s chart success now raises his tally of number one albums in the UK to 10. The only male solo artists to have more number one albums are Elvis Presley, who had 11, three of them posthumously, and Robbie Williams, who gained his 11th when Swings Both Ways topped the chart in November and December 2013.

High Hopes is Springsteen’s 30th charted album (and fourth consecutive chart topping album) including compilations and live albums. At 64, he is the fifth oldest male solo artist to reach number one with an album of newly-recorded material, behind Rod Stewart, who was 68 when he topped with Time last May, Bob Dylan (67), Neil Diamond (67) and David Bowie (66) who topped the charts with his critically acclaimed (and perhaps overrated) The Next Day in 2013.

High Hopes is Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album and differs from the rest of his albums in that it comprises of out-takes and new versions of his old material, and a trio of covers. Even the title track is a re-heated version of an obscure Springsteen song from 1996. This approach has caused a divide amongst many Springsteen fans and critics alike – as normally a new Springsteen studio album is lauded for its complete originality, storybook narrative and thematic arc of track listing.

As a lifelong Springsteen fan, I therefore approached his new album with a sense of trepidation – was it going to be another strong addition to the canon? or a lazy rag bag of odds and sods? After listening to the album for the last seven days, my answer to my own question is a bizarre yes to both questions. High Hopes falls between two stools – great songs, powerful lyrics and yet depressing amounts of over production in parts.

You cannot fault the old master for energy or effort. He has taken well chosen covers and a few unused songs predominantly from his 2000-2012 era, and as a result, the album sounds like a cross between The Rising (2002) and Wrecking Ball (2012). His voice still sounds powerful, the lyrical content still resonates and his interpretation of the chosen covers are strong – in particular, his outstanding romantic and haunting version of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream.

Other notables on the album include – Harry’s Place, Down In The Hole, Hunter of Invisible Game and The Wall.

These songs work because they are considered, thoughtful and with a spartan production. Actually, even Harry’s Place unfortunately veers towards over production in parts with Springsteen’s voice being shredded through a computer generator during the chorus.

So, almost all good so far…but listen closely to the album and a few problems begin to seep out. His updated interpretation of The Ghost of Tom Joad is a wrong turning and ends up as a dirge. This Is Your Sword creates an over produced Celtic harmony that sounds like a cross between Run Rig and Westlife. Heaven’s Wall sounds in parts like the sort of song that would introduce a god-forsaken corporate away weekend in Leatherhead – “raise your hands, raise your hands, raise your hands…” – come on Bruce, you are better than that.

One final problem – ex-Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Springsteen appears to have decided that Morello’s screeching guitar is the go-to replacement sound for Clarence Clemons’ iconic saxophone. I know that Clemons is no longer with us, but taking out that distinctive E-Street band saxophone and replacing it with Morello’s guitar is like taking Sir Alex Ferguson out of Manchester United and replacing him with a manager who has never won a trophy. It just doesn’t feel right and it isn’t working particularly well.

I am probably being overly critical here, as overall, the album is really good. It is not in the pantheon of great Springsteen albums, but it does offer a lot and it is a worthy addition to his massive musical catalogue.

As I own every single studio album released by Bruce Springsteen, I am going to try and place High Hopes in context against all his other albums. So here is my rating out of ten for each Springsteen album:-

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973) – 9
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973) – 9
Born to Run (1975) – 10
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) – 8.5
The River (1980) – 8
Nebraska (1982) – 9
Born in the U.S.A. (1984) – 8
Tunnel of Love (1987) – 8
Human Touch (1992) – 5
Lucky Town (1992) – 6
The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) – 6
The Rising (2002) – 7
Devils & Dust (2005) – 8
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006) – 8.5
Magic (2007) – 8
Working on a Dream (2009) – 7
Wrecking Ball (2012) – 8.5
High Hopes (2013) – 7.5

If you are a Springsteen fan, then this album is definitely worth buying. But it is a confusing album which I currently both love and hate. I admire Springsteen for continually coming up with good material into his mid sixties, but I wish that Springsteen would turn back time. He should revert back to early 1970′s E-Street band sound, ditch the over production and ditch Tom Morello. He has the voice, the energy, the lyrics, so why the hell attempt to spoil some of it with the wrong production?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

George_East January 21, 2014 at 12:38 am

Interesting to me that you don’t rate The Ghost of Tom Joad as an album. It’s by a distance my favourite Springsteen album of the last 20 years, and the only one outside the classic 70s/early 80s albums that I really return to.
Anyway I have literally just ordered High Hopes tonight, so I shall report back in due course.

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Charlie_East_West January 21, 2014 at 7:57 am

George – I have scored The Ghost of Tom Joad low because it is my least played Springsteen album, and this is because it didn’t grab me. I will try and reeducate myself with it again.

Springsteen (by his high standards) lost his way a bit in the 1990′s – he appeared to be more interested in developing soundtracks for films. His music didn’t really fit into the grunge and indie landscape at that time.

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George_East January 21, 2014 at 8:10 am

I agree with your comment about Bruce and the 1990s. I think I love Tom Joad so much because it is a companion piece to Nebraska, which for me is his best album. Of course these things are very personal and I can understand how it’s low key qualities might not grab.

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Charlie_East_West January 21, 2014 at 10:02 am

I normally love low key Springsteen, but there is just something about this album that almost bores me. I will give it another listen tonight.

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Charlie_East_West January 21, 2014 at 10:12 am

I agree with this passage from Stereogum – about the trajectory of Springsteen’s career:- “He was a young, rising rock star, with a hot streak that ran from his early twenties to his late thirties. And then, he stopped putting albums out frequently, largely sat out the ’90s, and effectively skipped the middle-aged soul-searching and listlessness of an aging pop star. When Springsteen was fully back on the radar, he was in his fifties and already an elder statesman, a cultural icon, but one who was also (frequently) making new music that people still deemed important.”

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George_East January 21, 2014 at 10:15 am

I’m also a big John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie fan, and the album kind of ties all of that together. It is like a musical equivalent of John Ford’s monumental version of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Your piece inspired me to play it as my going to work album this morning. It really is magnificent stuff.

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Charlie_East_West January 21, 2014 at 10:19 am

I will give it another go.

Also – The Promise and Tracks albums are brilliant. How many other artists can put together albums like these featuring so much brilliant material that failed to make an album?

In fact, The Promise is my favourite “lost” album of all time.

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George_East January 21, 2014 at 10:23 am

The Promise is indeed brilliant. I think the greatest ‘lost’ album of all time is Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes.

Mike Killingworth January 21, 2014 at 6:40 pm

I have BS’s “Collection 1973-2012″ which I play fairly often. Do I really need this as well? Isn’t there some marketing hype going on here?

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Charlie_East_West January 21, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Mike – this album contains completely different songs to that collection album. It is not a “best of” album, but rather reworked versions of obscure songs that did not make the cut on a number of albums.

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Charlie_East_West January 21, 2014 at 8:01 pm

One day, when I have the time, I will try and rank every single Springsteen song from first to last…

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George_East February 10, 2014 at 10:41 pm

I’ve finally got round to listening to this, after buying it a couple of weeks back. The production is truly horrible. Like the worst excesses of the 1980s. Drowns the songs.

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