Ugh. It almost pains me to write this. Especially when I consider that this will be the second time I mumble about a Springsteen album and the second not-so-favourable. I say this now because I do love a bit of Bruce Springsteen. My collection is stuffed with Boss. Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Magic, Darkness and both Borns get heavy rotation. However….
Earlier this year Bruce Springsteen released his eighteenth studio album. Eighteenth. Saying that, two of the songs have seen release previously and three of the remaining are covers.
Before I get into this too much and why am I getting into this now….
This weekend, while doing a bit of tidying up and keeping the little man company, I found and put on Springsteen’s Blood Brothers DVD. It documents the slightly awkward and touch-too-soon mini reunion of the E-Street Band to record a few new tunes for Bruce’s first Greatest Hits (I should note here that I got that CD on its release and it served as my introduction to Springsteen and from there on…) .
Two things came from watching Blood Brothers that feed into this post. The first is a moment where, suddenly, the discomfort and ill-at-ease Bruce felt in front of the camera seems to fade as he discusses the implications of a string arrangement that had been created for Secret Garden. Talking of the song as a narrative, Springsteen explains to the gathered co-producers and mixers that the song is a narrative. If any arrangement or sounds distract from that “we’re fucked.” The second element of note is that the 1995 session captured also found Bruce and the band cutting into Tim Scott McConnell’s High Hopes for the first time.
That version of High Hopes was released as a B-Side to Secret Garden. Which, really, is where it should have stayed.
Let’s skip forward to 2014. Post 2000 Springsteen is a different proposition to that of ’95 model Bruce. Now willing to trust others with production work, Bruce has seen his music produced, with varying results, by Brendan O’Brien (who should have taken a bow after Magic and not gone for the victory-lap with Working On a Dream) and, lately, Ron Anellio. Credit to him for this decision. If he’d stayed working away on his own, we may not have had the rebirth and revitalising of his and the E-Street’s sound that came with The Rising. Going on past lessons and biographical revelations, he may still have been in his home studio labouring away on the one album. Self-producing rarely works. It’s key to get a good collaborator in that can bring out an artist’s best and encourage them to shine.
So what’s the problem? Well I’d say Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital. Just look at the cover. Sorry Bruce but is the double denim and popped collar really the best fit for you in 2014?
In the past, Bruce has had a very tight quality control. Not letting anything out that he wasn’t 100% happy with or didn’t fit the feel / story of an album. That’s what archival releases like Tracks and the Darkness box are for. Working On A Dream marked a turning point. There should have been more use of “no” in the studio on that one… “supermarket beeps and a song about fancying the girl on the checkout while doing your shopping? Sure thing Boss!”
Fuelled by social circumstances again and looking to vent, for Wrecking Ball Bruce came up with some of his tightest and most direct, angry lyrics yet. However, the collaborators bought in to furnish these songs took them the wrong way and did exactly what Springsteen previously voiced such determination to avoid – they detracted from the lyrics and the songs.
Unfortunately the songs on High Hopes suffer the same fate at the same hands. This is not a studio album in a true sense. Long-term Springsteen ally/collaborator/sidekick Stevie Van Zandt has often said that on any one day, Bruce will have at least half an album of songs on him. With High Hopes we discover what would happen if that half-album of songs were taken into the studio, recorded with selections of the E-Street Band, it’s latest quasi-addition Tom Morello shoved in awkwardly, mixed with another half-album of left overs from the last decade, warmed up by over-production and served as a ‘fresh’ dish.
That’s not to say that the album is devoid of good music. Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall, The Wall, This Is Your Sword… all top-draw Springsteen material, even the brooding Harry’s Place feels like some of the cracking, darker material Springsteen wrote (though never truly released) in the early 90’s. Even it, though, is over-worked. Heaven’s Wall is nearly drowned in over-the top choir arrangements. Those heavy handed arrangements blight too much of the strong material here and are used far too much to prop up the lesser songs.
Morello is, frankly, out of place here. His guitar parts, the scratchy sounds that were once new and compelling, are both now and here tired and overplayed. They sound clunky when added to the title track and trample all over songs they have no business being near. Just take the title track as an example. It’s said that this project was born after Morello hearing High Hopes while preparing for the Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour and proposed it join the set list, from there the studio beckoned for a ham fisted bounce over a song that was only suited to B-Side status (let alone lead-single).
We didn’t need a second take on Ghost of Tom Joad and as for the recasting of American Skin (41 Shots)? The live version of this was compelling, tight and full of well-directed anger with a searing solo from Springsteen himself. It came at a turning point for Springsteen – pre-9/11 and on the back of the reunion tour, a relative drought of quality new material in the 90’s and here, suddenly, was a glimpse at new material that bristled over with the force of old material. Guitars like teak bolted onto socially-aware lyrics and furnished with delicate, perfectly fitted arrangements from the E-Street Band. A precursor to The Rising and a return to form after a decade of almosts.
Bruce has said that he never felt it got presented properly. So, as with Land of Hope and Dreams on Wrekcing Ball, it was given a new studio arrangement. Surely it would be a winner. Relevant again with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and back in the set list, a slow burning tune that builds to a thundering climax and release. Surely it would be a winner. Surely…. Except it isn’t. Instead that same song is flat (albeit with the exception of Clarence Clemons’ sax giving us one last treat from beyond), layered with cheap-sounding production effects and, in place of Springsteen’s own guitar, ruined by a solo from Morello that’s bad-80’s-power-ballad by numbers.
With Nebraska, Bruce took his raw, home-made demos to the E-Street Band. They tried them on for size and found the songs didn’t fit in the band setting. Springsteen released them as was. The result is one of his most loved and praised albums.
Secret Garden: Bruce tried a few grander arrangements, added layers, different string parts. Didn’t work. The original arrangement was released. But, the other arrangements, rather than scrapped, did see release as B-Sides and soundtrack additions.
With High Hopes…. it’s the heavy handed, overworked and near-drowned in effects versions of the songs that have been released.
In a way, High Hopes is best looked at as a “what if” album rather than a legitimate ‘new’ studio album. What if some of these songs – Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall… been given that little bit longer to gesticulate. What if some of these had been included in place of the clukers on Working On A Dream? What if Down In The Hole had been used in place of its very-close sister Paradise on The Rising? Sadly it’s not as intriguing or rewarding a listen as the “what-ifs” of Tracks’ second, third and even fourth discs.
To me, now, nearly ten months later and with Mr Springsteen assuming radio and road silence again, it’s a case of not only what-if but please, when the next album emerges we find the quality control of old back in place.
Back to Blood Brothers, though: