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New Springsteen album reviewed by a Springsteen superfan

High Hopes40 years into his career, it’s unlikely that there are a whole lot of rock fans out there who don’t have an opinion on Bruce Springsteen. So rather than pretending his new album will be judged as a stand alone piece of work, we decided to come at it from a different angle; what does a new Springsteen album sound like to a Springsteen nut? Resident office Boss boffin Tom Joad stepped up.

High Hopes is unexpected, with The Boss spending the last 18 months on the road touring the Wrecking Ball record and few hints of recording studio time accrued.

But the internet is a wondrously widespread beast and not only allows Backstreets, Greasy Lake and other Springsteen websites to obsessively follow developments, but allows Mr Springsteen to exchange ideas with his producers (Brendan O’Brien and Ron Aniello) and send ideas, bridges and mixes back and forth electronically.

High Hopes differs from previous output in three ways: it involves 2 different producers; features three cover versions; and on more than half of the twelve songs features Tom Morello.

Also known as the Night Watchman, Morello is former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and sat in for Steven Van Zandt recently, with Little Steven already committed to filming series 2 of the wonderful ‘Lilyhammer’ and Springsteen keen to tour the far-flung southern parts of the globe.

Keen observers will have seen Morello playing The Ghost of Tom Joad with the E Street Band at previous gigs, and this is one of the two Springsteen compositions revisited on High Hopes – the other being ‘American Skin’, which reappeared as a live number in Ireland last year, on the day Trayvon Martin’s killer walked free.

The album lacks the ‘feel’ that Bruce Springsteen usually seeks, a thematic coherence conveyed via strands of lyrical content within an overall production sound, in a precise running order. This theme –evidenced on, say, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River or even Wrecking Ball – imparts the core message and makes many Springsteen albums more than just the sum of their parts.

This record departs from this path in being a far more eclectic mix of recent music, obscure covers and remastered live material and has patches of light and shade as a result. Opener ‘High Hopes’ has Latin and marimba rythms, horns which can be heard on ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ and bowls along at a nice pace – could easily be a crowd-pleaser at a live show. ‘Harry’s Place’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Rising with a sinister mobster tale and ‘American Skin’ revisits the enduring disgrace of how fragile and cheap the lives of young black men are.

Bruce describes this song and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ as ‘among the best of my writing’ and both get a deserved airing on this record. (‘Ghost…’ is a song I’d have played at my own funeral, an unflinching portrayal of the underside of modern life uplifted by a hymn of defiant, positive resistance.)

Other stand-outs on early listening are ‘Down In the Hole’, ‘This is Your Sword’ and ‘The Wall’. The first has a haunting melody and searing, graphic lyrics which fit with a 9/11 motif; ‘Sword’ wouldn’t sound out of place at a ceilidh or as a modern church hymn; and ‘The Wall’ is the keynote song which Springsteen devotes two thirds of the liner notes to: the homage to a childhood friend missing in action in Vietnam and all the more bitter and angry for being delivered in a soft slow arrangement. ‘Apology and forgiveness got no place here at all’.

There are songs here to suit most tastes, but the record will appeal primarily to Springsteen anoraks and those looking to visit his music for the first time. There is variety and colour, some knock-out rock guitar from Tom Morello and more than occasional flashes of the writing which the man from Freehold has graced us with this last five decades. Check it out.

British listeners also snag an enclosed bonus DVD of Bruce and the E Street band performing the Born In The USA album at the Olympic Park in June 2013, featuring the best performance of some of those songs I’ve heard to date.

Still a believer…..

High Hopes is out now.
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