PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (take 2)

On this, Bruce Springsteen's most unsteady album, Tom Morello demonstrates how a backing player can nearly ruin the proceedings.

Bruce Springsteen

High Hopes

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2014-01-14
UK Release Date: 2014-01-13

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.