High Hopes…. Dashed

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…) .

blood_brothers_site-352x500Two 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:

Occupying Hypocrisy

Let me kick this post off with a couple of statements, in a ‘don’t get me wrong’ manner. Firstly, I love a bit of Rage Against The Machine and the first Audioslave album was an absolute monster musically – the other two had their highlights too. I’m also a huge Springsteen fan, many of his albums are perpetually in my car’s multichanger or playing through my iPods. It’s easy enough; I have them all, some in multiple formats and even a few of the boxsets.

Accordingly, my point is even stronger than an unbiased few as I admire both men as artists and some of their songs have featured in key moments in my life. One of the things that I really don’t like is hypocrisy and I can’t help but think they’re both guilty of it to a large extent at the moment.

bruce springsteen wrecking ballLet’s take Wrecking Ball as an example. It is a fine album. It’s certainly a lot stronger than Working On A Dream. It’s tight, it’s cohesive and sounds vital and packs a real punch – surprising given the lack of cohesion in the assembled musicians (there’s no real band more different groupings of musicians) which speaks volumes about the writing and production. We Take Care of Our Own, Jack of All Trades, Land of Hope & Dreams, Rocky Ground and even the title track are belters that will no doubt be setlist staples on the next few tours (Land… has been for the last decade already but the newer version is tighter than a duck’s arse). Death To My Hometown is a corker of a song that sounds like Bruce swallowed the songbook he’d been sniffing at for Seeger Sessions, chugged down some rocket fuel, strapped a guitar on and let fly (I sniffed a musical-criticism-cliche book before writing this).

The thing that stops me loving this album as much as Magic (of his recent splurge of productivity Magic and The Seegar Sessions sit up there with Darkness, Born To Run and Tunnel) is the inclusion of a couple of clunkers. I’m not talking about We Are Alive or You’ve Got It (every classic Boss album has a track or two like that but you know they’ll eventually grow on you in the same way as the jokes in a Hemmingway novel stop you getting overpowered by the weight of the drama). It’s the songs of ‘anger’, the songs that address the State of the Nation – you know, a financially and morally bankrupt America (not that the U.S of A is alone in such a state but Bruce’s Jersey is New not of the Channel Islands) – that irk me.

Yes, Bruce is at his best when he’s ‘angry’ and brooding. Look at Nebraska, Darkness and even USA. Hell even Tunnel of Love is a record of despair. But that negativity is more of a personal one – it’s his father, his soon-to-be ex-wife or even the Talk Show Stations on the radio. On ..USA, yes, there’s anger at the way the government is treating veterans and a few stabs at the system in Downbound Train but…. But my problem is that here Bruce Springsteen now is singing as if one of the ‘99%’ as the Occupy Movement have come to regard those of us that don’t have a few million in pocket change on any given day.

Bruce who is worth a rough $200 million or so. Mr Springsteen who has sold more albums than the entire Occupy movement has used markers for their placards. On Wrecking Ball’s weakest tracks (musically they’re diamonds cut from the same rock that spawned Seeger Sessions) Shackled and Drawn and Easy Money, Bruce sings about how:

“workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn”

Or how he’s going out on the town in search of that ‘easy money’. Now these are admirable lyrics. They are. For someone who can be beleived to be the character in those songs. I desperately wanted to catch Bruce and E-Street Band when they come to town this year but I was put off because I’d be facing a nice £200 cost just for me and my wife to catch the show. Anyone with ticket prices that high is already up on ‘banker’s hill’. If this were the Bruce that sang of operas being played out on the Turnpike and the streetlife of Asbury park circa 1972 it would be believable but for the multi-millionaire musician of 2012 to be singing as if cap-in-hand is as appropriate as Kirk Lazarus having a skin pigmentation procedure to play Sgt Osiris.

tom morello

Tom Morello - leave it at home mate

Let me reiterate one of my earlier points – Wrecking Ball is a good album. It’s bloody good. One of the highlights is the guitar work (though it’s nowhere near as it good or fiery as it could should be) of Tom Morello – not to mention Swallowed Up In The Belly of a Whale which is a dark, broody monster that creeps into your ears and should have replaced Easy Money. The two musicians are pretty close lately and have been popping up together wherever a need to stand on a makeshift stage and sing This Land is Your Land in a real ugh-inducing way – does a 70 year old Woody Guthrie folk song really sum up the problems faced by ‘the 99%’? – presents itself.

Indeed, Mr Morello is seemingly trying to become Guthrie – his guitar painted with whatever cliched slogan pops into his head and singing ‘protest’ songs at every opportunity while doing his damndest to become the champion of the Occupy Movement. Once again, this smacks of hypocrisy to me. How big were Rage? How many millions did they sell? Shitloads. Not only that but how many times have the band members gone “kerching!” to festival appearance requests since reuniting a few years back? How can you speak for the 99% (I should point out that I hate that phrase in itself) when you’re so far from being amongst them?

The only person who was able to imitate Guthrie without being so hideously ham-fisted about it was Bob Dylan but that was in 1962 and even he gave it up quickly – in fact, he never even claimed to be a protester. For multi-millionaire musicians whose talents lie in creating music of a far different beast to be suddenly finding their inner dust-bowl just reaks of cash in.

Bruce recently said that he would never be as active politically as he had been in the run-up to Obama’s victory, saying that artists should be “the canary in the cage.” Absolutley, couldn’t agree more. However, there’s a difference between lending your support and voice to a group and trying to be one of that group. Especially when the gap between their message and your circumstances is so severe. Christ, we’ll have Bon Jovi singing from the point of view of starving Africans next.

To rectify this malaise, stick the first RATM album or Battle of Los Angeles in your CD player – those are real songs of anger and power – or get hold of Wrecking Ball. I still love it but then I’ve adjusted the tracklisting thusly:

We Take Care of Our Own

Death to My Hometown

Jack of All Trades

This Depression

Swallowed Up (In The Bell of the Whale)

Wrecking Ball

You’ve Got It

Rocky Ground

Land of Hope and Dreams

American Land

We Are Alive

Bonus Tracks:

Easy Money

Shackled and Drawn

Like I said, it’s a great album and Bruce is better when he’s packing a punch (I really don’t want another Lucky Town / Human Touch or Queen of the Supermarket) but this way there’s a little less “I’m one of the people” cheese.