Music Reviews
10:39 am
Tue January 14, 2014

Uneven But Vital, Bruce Springsteen Has 'High Hopes'

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 11:04 am

High Hopes is a different sort of release for Bruce Springsteen. It features original and cover songs that had been performed live over the years, some never recorded in a studio setting, as well as a few older songs reconceived with new arrangements and musicians.

Springsteen first recorded the title track in the '90s; it's a cover of a song he's long liked, by the band The Havalinas. It's a good, rough-sounding piece of music, with a rousing chorus that sounds both joyful and determined. This time, it features Tom Morello from the band Rage Against the Machine on guitar.

Other songs on High Hopes, such as "Frankie Fell in Love," are Springsteen originals in the classic mode. When I say "classic mode," I'm referring to the way Springsteen builds so many of his songs — from the ground up, with a quiet beginning that states the verse and rapidly acquires a big, full-band sound. Listening to it coming through your earphones, you can easily imagine how it would rock the house of any arena Springsteen and the E Street Band might choose to play it in. Contrast that with another excellent song, "Hunter of Invisible Game," produced by Brendan O'Brien with the same meticulousness he brought to Springsteen albums such as The Rising and Working on a Dream. This is also a composition that benefits very much from subtle orchestration and Springsteen's softly phrased, intimate vocal.

One of the things you have to get used to, listening to this album, is that Springsteen was willing to sacrifice one of his most assiduous habits — conceiving of an album as a unified whole with an ongoing narrative — to accommodate the mixed-bag assortment he wants to give listeners throughout High Hopes. Thus, for example, he follows a recording of "American Skin (41 Shots)," one of his most somber songs about injustice, with a lovely 1980s pop song from the Australian band The Saints, "Just Like Fire Would."

Almost by definition, High Hopes is an uneven album, but that doesn't make it an inferior one. From a substantially reworked version of his 1995 song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" to a beautiful cover of "Dream Baby Dream" by the '70s New York avant-punk band Suicide, there's a sprawl to this material that's not going to be a non-stop pleasure for all the different kinds of fans Springsteen has. But as a demonstration of his range, his thoughtfulness and his ongoing enthusiasm to take in the entire 60-plus years of rock 'n' roll, High Hopes suggests a vitality, an undimmed eagerness, that makes you want to follow Springsteen wherever he may go.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Bruce Springsteen has a new album called "High Hopes." It's his 18th studio album and it's a different sort of release for him. The album features original and cover songs that he's performed live over the years - some never recorded in a studio setting - as well as a few older song reconceived with new arrangements and new musicians. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH HOPES")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Monday morning runs and Sunday night scream. Slow me down before the new year dies. But it won't take much to kill a loving smile and every mother with a baby crying in her arms singing give me help, give me strength, give a soul a night of fearless sleep. Give me love, give me peace. Don't you know these days you pay for everything? Got high hopes.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "High Hopes" featuring Tom Morello from the band Rage Against the Machine on guitar. It's a song Bruce Springsteen first recorded in the '90s, a cover of a song he's long liked by the band The Havalinas. As you heard, it's a good, rough-sounding piece of music, with a rousing chorus that sounds both joyful and determined. Other songs here such as "Frankie Fell in Love," are Springsteen originals in the classic mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRANKIE FELL IN LOVE")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) Good morning, good morning. The church mouse is snoring. News is out all over town. Frankie fell in love. Wake up, boys, wake up. You drunken choir boys sing it up. Our Juliet says her Romeo's been found. Frankie fell in love. World peace's going to break out. From here on in we're eating take out. She ain't going to be cooking for the likes of us. Somebody call mama and just tell her Frankie fell in love.

TUCKER: When I said classic mode, I was referring to the way Springsteen builds so many of his songs - from the ground up, with a quiet beginning that states the verse and rapidly acquires a big, full-band sound. Listening to it coming through your earphones, you can easily imagine how it would rock the house of any arena Springsteen and the E Street Band might choose to play it in.

Let's contrast that with another excellent song, "Hunter of Invisible Game," produced by Brendan O'Brien with the same meticulousness he brought to Springsteen albums such as "The Rising" and "Working on a Dream." This is also a composition that benefits very much from subtle orchestration and Springsteen's softly phrased, intimate vocal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUNTER OF INVISIBLE GAME")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I hauled myself up out of the ditch, built me an ark of gopher wood and pitch. Sat down by the roadside and waited on the rain. Honey, I'm the hunter of invisible game. Well, I woke last night to the heavy clicking and clack and a scarecrow on fire along the railroad tracks. There were empty cities and burning plains. I am a hunter of invisible game.

TUCKER: One of the things you have to get used to, listening to this album, is that Springsteen was willing to sacrifice one of his most assiduous habits - conceiving of an album as a unified whole with an ongoing narrative - to accommodate the mixed-bag assortment he wants to give listeners throughout "High Hopes."

Thus, for example, he follows a recording of "American Skin (41 Shots)," one of his most somber songs about injustice, with this lovely 1980s pop song from the Australian band The Saints, "Just Like Fire Would."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST LIKE FIRE WOULD")

SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) One night in a motel room, eyes cast like steel, I drank the wine that they left for my table. I knew the morning was too far. I smoked my last cigarette. I stay only to defy. The night was dark and the land was cold. I was frozen right to the bone. Just like fire would, I burn. Just like fire would. Just like fire would, I burn up. Five hundred miles...

TUCKER: Almost by definition, "High Hopes" is an uneven album, but that doesn't make it an inferior one. From a substantially reworked version of his 1995 song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" to a beautiful cover of "Dream Baby Dream" by the '70s New York avant-punk band Suicide, there's a sprawl to this material that's not going to be a non-stop pleasure for all of the different kinds of fans Springsteen has.

But as a demonstration of his range, his thoughtfulness and his ongoing enthusiasm to take in the entire 60-plus years of rock 'n' roll, "High Hopes" suggests a vitality, an undimmed eagerness, that makes you want to follow Springsteen wherever he may go.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Bruce Springsteen's new album "High Hopes." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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