Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (take 1)

Courtesy Shore Fire Media.

A patchwork of studio leftovers, covers and reworked originals billed as a studio album proper, High Hopes leaves something considerable to be desired.

Bruce Springsteen

High Hopes

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

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less

Alt-rock heroes the Foo Fighters deliver a three-hour blast of rock power that defies modern norms.

It's a Saturday night in Sacramento and the downtown area around the swank new Golden 1 Center is buzzing as if people are waiting for a spaceship to appear because the alt-rock heroes known as the Foo Fighters are in town. Dave Grohl and his band of merry mates have carried the torch for 20th-century rock 'n' roll here in the next millennium like few others, consistently cranking out one great guitar-driven album after another while building a cross-generational appeal that enables them to keep selling out arenas across America.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.