Bruce Springsteen delivers his latest album, High Hopes, that may have had even higher hopes than the Boss could manage.
More than the fact that it leaked on iTunes just long enough for some of us to get our hands on it ahead of the January 17 release, what has sparked talk about Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album is that it's not a unified collection of new material painstakingly built around a theme or direction – the way things have been done for four decades from a man who can give full meaning to the term obsessive.
It is instead newly recorded songs that have been live favourites but never released; songs that have been reinterpreted from their first low key sightings; and songs which didn't fit onto some of his 21st century albums for thematic/obsessive reasons.
Rather than mark down High Hopes because of these mongrel origins let's not ignore the fact that Bruce Springsteen has only made one genuine great record this century, Devils & Dust, and a couple of the others (Magic and Working On A Dream) were well below average until rescued by strong second halves. So maybe pulling together a bunch of songs because they're good songs worth hearing rather than thematically linked isn't the worst way to operate.
Bruce Springsteen album High Hopes.
After all, there has long needed to be a home for the 14-year-old American Skin (41 Shots), here a powerful mix of calming hymn and quiet but still blood raising excoriation, that is as relevant now, a year or two after the young African American high school student, Trayvon Martin, was shot in Florida, as it was when he wrote and performed it in the wake of young Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo being shot in New York. Likewise for The Wall, first played in 2003 and tonally in keeping with 2005's Devils & Dust, which is a starkly beautiful look at apology, forgiveness and their relative worth in the context of the bleak, black and almost remorseless Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Irrespective of the personal base of the story – several of Springsteen's friends in the Jersey shore music scene of the late '60s were sent to Vietnam and didn't return – this is as political and provocative in its own way as American Skin. However, like that song, The Wall lives on above the immediate fray through Springsteen's almost conversational but still emotional delivery, the ache imparted by the simple elegance in the organ of the late Danny Federici and a dignified but touching trumpet play out.
There is reason enough for this collection if it means space for the laidback, strings-dust motes-and-spiritual love combination of Hunter Of Invisible Game, which is one of those Springsteen ballads that holds your heart deceptively tight even as it feel so light. And anyone who saw the Australian shows would recognise the value in the controlled power, restrained anger and scorching climax of the new version of The Ghost Of Tom Joad, where temporary E Streeter, Tom Morello, swaps verses with Springsteen and sears even more with his guitar than he does on American Skin.
If the warm but hurting Down In The Hole - built on similar grounds to the low impact organ, car mechanic rhythm and smoulder of I'm On Fire, but without its intensity - and the gospel-driven Heaven's Wall feel more like out-takes than a vital absence being filled, and the Seeger Sessions -like Gaelic folk flavours of This Is Your Sword - holds its shape but not your attention, they are all still far from rubbish.
There is better, although with still slightly mixed returns, with the muttered gangster story Harry's Place (saxophone provided by the late Clarence Clemons in 2002; its often serrated guitar line provided by Morello in 2013) and the bar room bash of Frankie Fell In Love, as both take on familiar musical territory. Something similar could be said for the heartland soul rock of Chris Bailey's Just Like Fire Would. But while it's not the first Saints track I'd have picked for a cover (imagine the brassed-up E Street Band attacking Know Your Product for example), it does fit this band neatly and gives Springsteen a chance to throw in some stuttering soul man mannerisms for fun.
Context and conviction for all these songs though could be said to come in the album's opening and closing. High Hopes, originally performed by the Havalinas in the 1980s, begins proceedings with a working man's perspective on capitalism's underbelly which is something like optimism when compared with the bitter anger and pointed accusations on so much of 2012's Wrecking Ball. It also punches out with the exuberance of the current large scale E Street Band, which approaches 20 people on stage, in its dirt floor-and-whiskey stamp.
By contrast, the regular live favourite of Dream Baby Dream, from the '70s arthouse/electronic duo, Suicide, takes on a grand if airy atmosphere that becomes heavy with plaintiveness and urging the longer it goes. Although it's built around harmonium and basic drum machine, there's more than enough in its percolating dramatic core to first of all make sense of the implied choral lift late in the song and then to seal the link, via its title as much as its drama, to Roy Orbison; who Bruce Springsteen has long used as a template.
Both songs sit outside the Springsteen canon but in these recordings take on separate and wholly justifiable lives. So yes, sometimes you don't need to plan, you just need to play.