Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Who's The Boss? Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes

There is a poetic circularity in that WWDBD?’s maiden voyage of 2014 should feature one of the highlights of 2013.

Seeing Bruce Springsteen at the Stade De France, one delightfully balmy night last summer, was the fulfilment of a unfilled curiosity desire to see just what all the fuss was all about.

Was he really capable of pulling off marathon, four-hour sessions of such messianic fervour that he had the crowd quite literally out of the palm of his hand? Was it possible that the artist, would keep his side of the bargain and be the infectious, rock’n’roll fanboy his reputation pertained to? And could he possibly carry off a major stage show without the presence of ‘The Big Man’ himself, Clarence Clemmons?

The answer, of course, was yes to all of those questions. And, frankly, there shouldn’t have been any doubt to begin with.

Springsteen is a full-on presence in the rock firmament. There are no half-measures. And, for the last decade or so, he has been pushing an incredible momentum of recording and touring that would shame acts half his age.

As an artist so wedded, image-wise, to America’s industrious heartland, Springsteen has always been a tireless toiler. But even by his own standards, the last half decade has seen a noticeable uptick in productivity, with Devils & Dust, The Seeger Sessions, Magic, Working On A Dream and 2012’s Wrecking Ball coming along in quick succession.

Much like Paul Weller, another exponent of applying work ethic to an abundance of creativity, whose own purple patch has yielded a similar rate of return, Springsteen doesn’t seem to want to stand still, even as he heads for his 65th year. "It's that old story, the light from the oncoming train focuses the mind," he recently told Rolling Stone.

It was, then, only somewhat of a surprise when, in November, he announced that there would be another album early in the new year. Except that it is only sort of a new album: High Hopes brings together 12 songs that have either lain around on shelves, or have been included in the live shows, and adds new arrangements and Rage Against The Machine alumnus Tom Morello, who appears to have become Springsteen’s latest BFF.

Appearing on eight of High Hopes’ tracks, Morello’s heaving guitar - and vocals - certainly adds a different texture. Springsteen has never been one to let his sound stagnate and even when attempts to freshen it up don’t quite work - as on a couple of Wrecking Ball’s tracks - you still have to thrust your hat skywards at his endeavour.

So is High Hopes, as a sort-of-new album, and therefore only sort-of Springsteen’s 18th studio recording, any good? Well, it’s a Springsteen album, which gives it an instant bye to the top half of rock's Premier League. But, as Manchester United are finding this season, a history of unrelenting glory doesn’t always mean another trophy is immediately on the cards.

Thus High Hopes does have a feeling of being a patchwork lacking the narrative that threaded through Wrecking Ball's tirade against the modern human condition, and The Rising's angry tilt at 9/11. Perhaps that may have something to do with some of the tracks being recorded in transit during the Wrecking Ball tour in studios as far flung as New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and even Australia. On top of that, E-Street stalwarts Clemmons, who died in 2011, and pianist Danny Federici, who died in 2008, both appear posthumously on various tracks, giving it all the air of a garage project that has been chipped away at over time, rather than in one concerted effort.

That isn't the case, though, but Springsteen recognises that High Hopes is a collection of original songs and a couple of covers, material that has been aired on the road but never committed to the studio, and stuff that has been lying around in bits and incomplete pieces, waiting for the dust to be blown off them.

Despite the unevenness, High Hopes is unmistakably Springsteen. This is no vanity project; this isn't Sting on some mad flight of fancy turning German baroque choral cantatas into jazz lite; and this is certainly isn't the inevitable “can’t be arsed to come up with anything new, so let’s do a covers album” limp offering. It’s a collection of Bruce Springsteen songs by Bruce Springsteen - what more could you want?

It starts off brightly enough, with the title track - a cover of a twenty-year-old song by LA’s Havalinas - launching with a drum machine snare riff that could have been the intro of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love. In Springsteen and Morello’s hands, it’s a poppy, Latin-infused bouncer that, while losing the energy it had live during the Wrecking Ball tour, sounds like its been in the Springsteen canon forever.

But from there we switch to Harry’s Place which should have been on either an early 80s Don Henley album, or the featured track in a Miami Vice episode. Not that it's bad...it's just that it lacks some of the vitality that made Wrecking Ball a mostly excellent album.

More of this pop sensibility lurks in the first formal recording of American Skin (41 Shots), the controversial and acerbic shot at police brutality that built to anthemic proportions in the live set last summer, carrying more of Springsteen's Spectorish wall of sound, rather than the somewhat anaemic treatment here.

I am, of course, being a little picky, but then that is the critic's right. Luckily, next door, Just Like Fire Would restores things to where they should be, with a song - originally recorded by Australian rockers The Saints - that in Springsteen's hands uncannily resembles John Cougar Mellencamp's Small Town, though that, I suspect, is simply from being a product of the same homespun, blue collar ethic.

The Ghost of Tom Joad, is another live stomper, which gets a new recorded treatmentin which Morello duets with Springsteen. Springsteen himself says that while Joad may have been a favourite live, "it was among the best of my writing and deserved a proper studio recording". On record, Joad takes on a heavier feel than live, when the entire E-Street Band get to spread out. Here it feels compressed, with Morello's guitar growling heavily underneath and his vocals - strongly reminiscent of the great Warren Zeavon - providing a dryer contrast to Springsteen's trademark rasp.

If there's one thread that does run through High Hopes, it is that the album moves through the gears to arrive at the Springsteen register die-hard fans prefer. Not for them Dancing In The Dark, with its trite Top 40 cheese, but instead the colder, sparser likes of The Wall, the playfulness of Frankie Fell In Love or the rustic charm of Hunter Of Invisible Game.

High Hopes will, I'm sure, disappoint those hoping, wanting or even demanding that the glut of vital new Springsteen material continues at the pace it has done this last half-decade. And although you can't help but feel that this is a rummage through the odds and sods of songs written or prepared during various eras going back over 30 or even 40 years, there is just enough to satisfy the appetite. That said, we have to assume - and I'd say safely so - that Springsteen's next outing won't be a polishing of unglued items in a scrapbook, but a record with the singularity of purpose and story of Wrecking Ball.

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