“Don’t you know these days you pay for everything?” is the build up to the chorus of ‘High Hopes’, the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album, which is rather ironic considering that it can be streamed for free on The Guardian’s website. As marketing strategies go, it’s not exactly the most innovative tactic considering the tricks other acts have pulled off recently, but then again, Springsteen is, and always has been unapologetically classic in his approach. (Besides, the real reason it was streamed is because Amazon accidentally released it early.)
The only twist to the album is the fact that it’s not 100% a brand new studio album. Instead, the follow up to 2012’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ brings together covers, forgotten live favourites and rerecording of older tracks. While it could be seen as a cash-in strategy for others, you get the impression that The Boss has put as much passion into this release as any other; careful selecting which of his own characters to revive and whose stories should be given the E-Street treatment. It’s an anthology, which also serves as a tribute to long-time collaborator Clarence Clemons whose final studio recordings featured on Wrecking Ball, but does feature on two tracks here.
Opening with the cover of The Havalina’s ‘High Hopes’, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello is quick to stamp his identity on the project, creating a series of squeals that tie the gritty carnival anthem together, alongside bursts of brass, tribal beats, honky piano and, naturally, the growl. It’s a similar recipe used on ‘Just Like Fire Would’ – a cover of The Saint’s ‘86 single which sounds more like a Springsteen track (a sun-shot We Take Of Our Own, specifically) than some of the rerecordings of his own.
Of the “new” tracks, it’s astounding to think that most were left on the cutting room floor from sessions dating back to the 90s. Inkeeping with the festival feel of the aforementioned covers, ‘Heaven’s Wall’ blends gospel-infused chants with Gaelic violin and a guitar/drum breakdown that sounds like the after effects of, well, a wrecking ball. ‘Harry’s Place’ – originally intended for The Rising – opens with an 80s film soundtrack groove (starring The Big Man himself) before the story of Harry begins. It’s a powerful track, with F-bombs a plenty (“Don’t fuck with Harry’s money, don’t fuck with Harry’s girls”) made even more sinister with Bruce’s vocal in the lower ranges of his register almost throughout.
A new version of ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, the opening track to Springsteen’s 1995 album of the same name, brings the union with Morello full circle. Following a Rage Against The Machine cover, Bruce and Tom share vocals on a cinematic remake of the track, which is almost twice the length of the original. Anyone doubting the process of revisiting older tracks would struggle to argue with a dramatic reimagining that makes the original seem like a demo. It’s here that Morello’s guitar is at its most Rage too, creating sounds that few guitarists could.
‘American Skin (41 Shots)’, a mini-epic of a song written about the unlawful police shooting of Amadou Diallo and dedicated to Trayvon Martin following last year’s case, is given its first studio release, highlighting Bruce’s ability to capture the frustration of so many in a few words: “You’ll get killed just for living in your American skin.” Another tribute ‘(The Wall)’ pays respect to a musician who didn’t return home from the Vietnam War following a visit to the memorial in Washington. It is perhaps more fittingly a tribute to E-Street Band organist Danny Federici however, who passed away in 2008. As is the case with Clarence, it’s likely that High Hopes will be the last time he features on a Springsteen album, which makes the faded outro of his keys even more poignant.
It’s certainly a mixed bag musically, but with the exception of a couple of tracks that go a dust-road cliché too far, this collection of outtakes is a worthy addition to his collection of blockbuster features. At times more stalk than he’s ever been, and at others creating euphoric ‘Born To Run’ moments more fitting with his age, expect the already extended-edition of a live show to get even longer. “Gotta keep the fire burning,” Springsteen repeats on a cover of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ to close the chapter, not that anybody could ever imagine it going out.