With but a handful of contemporary artists documenting our skewed, strife-filled times, Bruce Springsteen gladly steps in time and time again.
Few musicians have claimed the role as the voice of multiple generations, yet through Springsteen’s late-career resurgence, he paints a vivid portrait of American life as he did four decades ago. With “High Hopes,” his 18th studio album, Springsteen dumps the generic, corny instrumentals that made 2012’s “Wrecking Ball” instill more mixed emotions in listeners than the video for Miley Cyrus’ song of the same name and implements pure grittiness throughout.
“Candy’s Room,” from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” hid submissively crammed between the album’s better-known songs like “The Promised Land” and “Badlands.” But it contained the, well, Bruce-iness that has made his lyrics transcend simple melodies and choruses: manic, colorful short stories for the verses and repetitive, economical lines that fade out with the instruments.
“Harry’s Place,” track two on “High Hopes,” anchors Springsteen’s latest effort as “Candy’s Room” did so long ago with a simple message: same depression, different time.
Yes, with “Wrecking Ball” Springsteen tried recreating “Grapes of Wrath”-like desperation and useless hope. However, he also included hip-hop and Celtic elements — things he should toss back into his chest full of musical ambition and never grab again. If anything, Springsteen’s ability to stick with the 40-year-old formula, like with “Harry’s Place,” for most of “High Hopes” is the most enjoyable part here.
The most notable difference from Springsteen’s other recent work comes with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello’s influence.
His unique style is most apparent with the re-working of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the title-track from Springsteen’s 1995 release. The original emphasizes Springsteen’s lyrics above all other aspect, but now, Morello blazes through solos that run up and down the guitar’s fret board after each verse. Since I place the original in my top-five favorite Springsteen songs, I can’t say this version is better, but it works — just like the rest of “High Hopes.”
However, Springsteen’s decision to both record songs he’s performed live for more than a decade now and rework other tracks like “The Ghost of Tom Joad” prevents “High Hopes” from standing out as another career-highlighting album.
The album’s title track proves as much. “They’re gonna smother love, they’re gonna shoot your hopes/Before the meek inherit, they’ll learn to hate themselves,” Springsteen sings, with what seems like modern-day vigor and cynicism until you realize he first recorded this song back in 1995.
For someone so bent on transferring news headlines to stanzas, his decision to produce little new work for “High Hopes” makes everything here seem a bit outdated. Sure, certain themes and topics owe no allegiance to one particular point in time, but albums like “Nebraska” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” took ideas like classism and patriotism and showed why they seemed so relevant in the greater scheme of things.
We don’t expect Springsteen to produce mere collections of songs; we expect songs that mesh in a cohesive way and produce as clear of a history lesson as any textbook or lecture.
And that’s unfair, but Springsteen didn’t redefine the power music can produce without knowing how that may heighten the expectations of his work.
Springsteen’s latest adds no new cornerstones to his extensive catalog. It does enhance a few missed jewels, though, and devout fans will find enough passion and emotion in the ghostly lyrics to last them until his next release.
Final Rating: Three out of Five Suns