“I’m not sure what he had in mind from the beginning, but this is what we ended up with.” Ron Aniello on High Hopes.
In my original review of the album I said “Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital” and that the quality control, usually tighter than a duck’s arse, had gone AWOL here. I stand by those thoughts.
It’s hard to consider this as a ‘studio album’ and producer Ron Aniello’s “this is what we ended up with” is a good summary – if you take a group of songs not deemed right / worthy of inclusion on other albums, slap a few covers together and dub Tom Morello’s now-dull guitar over the top, this is what you end up with.
And it’s a shame. It’s a real shame because unlike, say, Human Touch, there are some great tunes on here that could be presented and served so much better had they not been included on what feels like a cash-grab.
‘Down In The Hole’ has shades of ‘Paradise’ from The Rising and is steeped in that song’s delicate touch and minimal beauty and is something of a family-affair with backing vocals from Patti Scialfa and their children. It’s a beautiful thing.
‘The Wall’ is one of the finest songs in Bruce’s catalogue but by dumping it on this ‘odds and ends’ album it’s not going to get the attention it should. An ode to a fallen serviceman, inspired by the loss of early mentor Walter Cichon (detailed in the Born To Run book) who volunteered for the Army only to go missing in action in Vietnam in March 1968. It had been a long time since Bruce visited Vietnam in song and this is as fitting and touching as any of those songs he’d done so with previously.
‘Frankie Fell In Love’ sounds like one of the best Bruce and Steve songs that barely features Steve at all – Mr Van Zandt was largely absent from sessions and the tour due to filming commitments on Lilyhammer. It’s joyful, whooping along with pure enthusiasm and a really catchy-as-flu melody. It brings to mind a modern recasting of the dynamism the duo had on earlier tunes like ‘Two Hearts’.
‘Harry’s Place’ – correct me if I’m wrong – dates back to sessions for The Rising and is a brooding gangster-populated number with a fantastic opening line “Downtown hipsters drinkin’ up the drug line”.
However. Bruce declared at the time that, for High Hopes, “Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the rest of this project to another level. Thanks for the inspiration Tom.” Yeah… thanks Tom. It’s the cuts onto which Morello is plastered that weaken the whole joint. Credit to him for living out every six-string plucking fan’s dream (the one where Bruce is suddenly short a guitarist and your phone rings), but the fit just isn’t right. The awful re-recording of ‘American Skin’ is unpardonable.
The covers are lacklustre and suffer for Morello’s incessant ‘jamming’ over them. Bruce and The E-Street had already tackled ‘High Hopes’ and their decent-enough take was used as a b-side. The take included here is simply poor. Nor can I hear ‘Just Like Fire Would’ without hearing “Just like firewood, I burn up”.
Hard to view as a studio album proper, High Hopes is a real mixed bag; some great tunes lost amidst the flotsum and reheats.
Highlights: ‘The Wall’, ‘Down In The Hole’ ‘Frankie Fell In Love’
Lowlights: The Ghost of Tom Joad, American Skin (41 Shots) two originals damned by their “reimagining”.