As a rule, backing musicians have to be top-notch, the best in the world, but at the same time can never outshine whoever they’re backing. Bruce Springsteen‘s success is a little more tied to his band than others’: who can imagine “Born in the USA” without Clarence Clemons on sax, or “4th July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” minus the late Danny Federici’s accordion? These are undoubtedly pivotal moments in Springsteen’s career, and yet they never allow themselves to be too assertive. This is still the Boss’s game, after all.
So it is safe to say that, by manner of his ridiculous, overbearing guitar playing, Tom Morello nearly cracks the already-thin ice High Hopes stands on. Morello is certainly one of the most distinctive guitarists of his generation, and it would be impossible to mistake his style for anyone else’s, but in the case of a Springsteen album, that’s a very, very bad thing. He wacka-wackas it up on track after track, constantly asserting himself over the top of the track as if his overdriven harmonics were anything but headache-inducing. As a perfect example, take “Ghost of Tom Joad”, a re-recording of the title track from Springsteen’s 1995 solo album: Morello’s guitar stays in the background of what is a pretty decent electrifying of the folky original, until he wah-wah’s a Limp Bizkit outtake for a full two-minutes of obnoxious riffs with an octave pedal cranked to ‘overcompensating’, and adds nothing of merit to the track whatsoever. If during mixing his tracks had been deleted, nothing would be lost.
That his ‘contributions’ threaten to tip the whole thing over highlights how tentative the project was to begin with. Comprised of re-recordings of outtakes, covers, and older songs like “Tom Joad”, High Hopes takes as its starting point some sub-standard Bruce material, leaving it trapped and lacking for options. That isn’t to say all of these songs are, or were bad; quite the opposite. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was written for The Rising and in its older incarnations, live and as recorded for that album, it’s a taut thing of palpable violence, quiet when need be and never too bombastic at its loudest. But as rerecorded, Springsteen weights it down with vocal effects and, of course, a painful “look at me look at me hey hey hey” of a solo by Morello. “Just Like Fire Would” and “Frankie Fell in Love”, the former originally by the Saints, are typical Springsteenian rockers, but without much to recommend them by. And “Harry’s Place”, an aggressively ’80s exercise, may be the worst song Springsteen has ever written, porno sax and all.
It’s in the smaller moments where High Hopes finally shines. “Hunter of Invisible Game” lilts along on a bed of strings and Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” becomes an organ-driven ballad. The former even includes a sensible guitar part by Morello, at his least intrusive, and consequently his best. “The Wall” is over 15 years old; with Federici’s tender organ overlaying Springsteen’s reminisces about New Jersey pre- and post-Vietnam, it feels like the only potentially classic song on High Hopes, and saves it from being a late-career flub.
It’s the moments where Federici floats along, asserting himself by drawing attention away, that one remembers what makes a good backing band work. His playing raises up the song, not his ego. Morello’s guitar is the petulant elementary-school child who cries for attention; the E-Street Band are actual adults. The line is never clearer than on the lackluster High Hopes.