You’ve usually been in on the ground floor with Bruce Springsteen or you’ve never felt at home.
I was lucky to get my first full taste a little more than 39 years ago in the days before Christmas at a spellbinding three-hour show in the Seneca College gym in Toronto. It began with that stripped-down version of Thunder Road you can hear on the bootlegs, featured pretty much the repertoire of his two albums, routinely extended the songs into sweat-swatting territory, and was capped with three encores that included a set of Christmas rock songs.
I was sold. I am still a happy customer.
Every album since has made it into the collection and revealed a different dimension of the artist I think is America’s greatest rock performer of the last half-century. Some of the albums rarely get played any longer, but the best of the music is committed to memory as few other artists’ work could be.
To appreciate his recordings, though, I think it is necessary to be a faithful concert-goer, because nothing that Springsteen has recorded has had the same wallop and blast of his energized, enervating performances. When you see him play, and play, and play, you can accept the compressed or embellished or polished production. The artistry works in reverse: the recordings remind me of the shows.
His newest album, High Hopes, is a strange beast of covers and do-overs and I am initially considering it to be a) a small and acceptable indulgence, b) a side project that took enough shape to merit an album, c) a transitional recording that permits The Boss a little breathing room, and d) a sign that we should not expect brilliant and audacious new work but accept modest and interesting rework.
We should park high hopes.
It all starts well enough, though. The title song is about 20 years old, a cover available until now only obscurely, and has a likeable and frolicking new treatment here.
The juice drains out momentarily on Harry’s Place, with Springsteen (for the first time I think) dropping a few f-bombs. But it takes flight again with 41 Shots, the reprise of the 2000 song about a New York police victim (redone in tribute to Trayvon Martin).
Former Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello provides ample substitution for Steve Van Zandt (in production for his TV series) with solos on 41 Shots and a much more profound contribution to The Ghost of Tom Joad, originally a pretty acoustic number but on High Hopes a full-on seven-minute rock anthem and without argument the album’s highlight.
The plaintive Down to the Hole worked for me, principally because it used unreleased performances by the late E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. The Wall is a terrific homage to a late New Jersey rocker lost in Vietnam and the best lyrical stretch on the recording.
Not much else works terribly well, but then again, not much else is terrible. It’s meh material, and while Springsteen’s albums in the last two decades have been cluttered with it, High Hopes is little less of a grab-bag of also-rans. The four-star stuff (about 20 minutes of the album) is certainly worth the price of admission.
Remember, this guy’s 64. The old dog has earned the long leash.