High Hopes is possibly the strangest offering in the Bruce Springsteen catalog. Advance word has been mixed, owing almost exclusively to its patchwork construction. It has been well documented and much discussed, but it nonetheless bears repeating: High Hopes is comprised largely of holdovers from previous recording sessions, with a few stray covers and revamped originals thrown in for good measure. This has thrown the critical establishment off balance. How best to approach the album? Odds-and-ends collection? Studio album proper? Something else altogether?
The relatively muted press blitz staged by the Springsteen camp hasn’t helped matters. The abrupt release announcement was followed by an uncharacteristically muddled publicity campaign. The official line is that High Hopes is a studio album, but the accompanying qualifiers have been ample, albeit subtle. In the self-penned liner notes, Springsteen writes, “This is music I always felt needed to be released. … I felt [the songs] deserved a home and a hearing.”
No objections here, but the implication is not that the songs were written or selected with a well-defined end in mind. Granted, for some musicians, it’s par for the course to construct a studio album in this piecemeal fashion. Springsteen, however, has been nothing if not a painstaking recording artist, agonizing over production and song selection and placement (the labored gestation of Darkness on the Edge of Town, for instance, is notorious). So, while I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity of Springsteen’s assessment of the album, it still sounds a little like he’s hedging, attempting to shift expectations in advance.
Nonetheless, because Springsteen himself has chosen to call High Hopes a studio album, it’s only fitting that we approach it on those terms. That’s a shame, because as a studio album, it leaves something considerable to be desired.
Make no mistake, there are some true masterworks here, stuff that stands proud alongside Springsteen’s best work of the past 15 years. The searing, clear-eyed indictments of “Harry’s Place” contrast beautifully with the song’s seductive (and atypical) groove. “American Skin”, first released as a live cut in 2001 , here gets the measured, symphonic treatment its lyric has always deserved. “The Wall” is a hymn-like, haunting graveside meditation, performed with breathtaking tenderness.
Most impressive of all is “Hunter of Invisible Game”, a dazzling vision of apocalypse in waltz time. Strings sing around the narrator’s evocation of empty cities, burning plains, empires of dust, and the devil himself. The titular hunter sings the glory of the “kingdom of love” and cautions that “high hope and faith and courage and trust” are fleeting, all the while sharpening his blade, steeling himself against the inevitable confrontation with his invisible foe. It’s a bottomless, shimmering mystery of a song, as profound as anything Springsteen has ever written.
The problem with this record isn’t a lack of strong songs—there are plenty here. Rather, it’s the unusual surfeit of so-so songs that undercuts the album. Tom Morello’s guitar pyrotechnics might impress on first listen, but they don’t imbue “The Ghost of Tom Joad” with new or heightened meaning. The jangling, effervescent “Just Like Fire Would”, while far from unpleasant, adds little to the proceedings. Ditto “Frankie Fell in Love” (though this one has great potential as a live staple). “This Is Your Sword” is perhaps the weakest of the lot—its overbroad lyric isn’t done any favors by the ham-fisted tune that accompanies it.
What’s more, due to the nature of its construction and the relatively high incidence of mediocre material, the album lacks a sorely missed sense of scope and unity. In the course of the past forty-odd years, Springsteen has taken pains to develop a discography as coherent and cohesive as any in American popular music. As an artist, he’s always lived and died by the principle that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. High Hopes, by contrast, is precisely as good as its best material and as bad as its worst, nothing more and nothing less.