There is a Bruce Springsteen album I have found myself regularly returning to over the past few years. Live/1975-85 is a triple-disc set compiling renditions of his very best in a release which encapsulates the manic, endearing workmanship of The Boss of old. Listening to Springsteen’s latest effort, High Hopes, I was filled with a great sense of nostalgia as the New Jersey native attempts to cling onto these qualities in an album which, ultimately, disappoints.
Fittingly, High Hopes is comprised largely of outtakes from previous album sessions, re-imagined and provided a glossy studio sheen. It also includes three covers: Tim Scott McConnell’s ‘High Hopes’, The Saints’ ‘Just Like Fire Would’ and ‘Dream Baby Dream’, originally recorded by 70’s electronic punk duo Suicide. The result? A curiously collected jumble lacquered with the earnest mediocrity of Springsteen’s newly-developed sound.
As often with artists reaching the autumn years of their career, Springsteen’s musical trajectory of late has taken a turn for the conservative. Sat in a crowded Pyramid field at last year’s Glastonbury festival, I endured 40 minutes of tepid country musings before Billy Bragg launched into anything remotely akin to the spiky political triumphs that the festival omnipresent is so adept. This is similarly apparent with High Hopes, as Springsteen retreats into radio-friendly Americana, only affording glimpses of the energy with which he made his name.
High Hopes is at its worst with the early one-two of the wince-inducing ‘Harry’s Place’, and ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ – a drab, seven minute slog lamenting police shootings in America. First performed in 2000 in response to the death of police shooting Amadou Diallo, the song now seems timely given the recent events surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. However, for all of its poignancy, ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ is an interminable bore.
This effort is not without its redemptive qualities, however. ‘Down in the Hole’ affects the understated pulse of Born in the USA’s ‘I’m on Fire’ to great effect and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, originally released on 1995’s album of the same name, benefits from being significantly beefed up by Tom Morello’s guitar. Elsewhere, low-key jaunt ‘The Wall’ evokes Springsteen’s last great track, 2008’s ‘The Wrestler’, whilst the aforementioned ‘Dream Baby Dream’ swells into an inspired finale.
Overall a solid release, High Hopes is unfortunately undermined by its use of previously discarded numbers and a predilection for restrained conventionalism. An album with an eye on the past, one can’t help but feel High Hopes is an unnecessary revisit.