After a disappointing ‘90s followed by an excellent run of albums from ‘The Rising’ (2001) through to ‘Wrecking Ball’ (2012), ‘High Hopes’ always ran the risk of coming at the end of a good run. The songs are mostly culled from sessions from that run of albums, some of them re-recorded with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame, who adds some verve and punch on guitar, as he has done on recent legs of the E-Street Band tour. But let’s judge the album on its merits. It was never going to be a thematic work, but a good collection of songs is still a worthwhile album. So, is it?
Almost. There is a lot to enjoy here. Firstly the opening title track (originally by The Havalinas) is a full-on choppy rocker, lyrically and musically giving us “high hopes” for this early-January album and for the musical year ahead. Then we drift from the low-key ‘Rising’-outtake Harry’s Place to the first ever studio rendition of American Skin (41 Shots). A worthy song perhaps, but a bit dull musically.
The album springs back to life with Saints cover Just Like Fire Would, a catchy poppy performance that sounds like it could almost have been on ‘The River’. This is followed by a decent ‘Rising’-outtake Down in the Hole as the album continues to veer from style to style and era to era.
But it’s still working. If nothing else it is showing the broader palette that Bruce has played with over the last decade, including the smart addition of some of the Seeger Sessions band (horns especially) to the E-Street Band. Live on stage these days they can really tone it up and tone it down, as well as mess with genres, and we see a lot of this on this album.
Slightly less successful perhaps are some of the songs from a shelved gospel album project (recorded in the mid-2000s). Heaven’s Wall is gospel-tinged rock-by-numbers, while This Is Your Sword is only saved by a powerful E-Street “Wall of Sound”-type arrangement.
A definite highlight of the album is the new muscular full-band version of The Ghost of Tom Joad, offering a nice contrast to its quieter origins. Morello comes into his own here, both on guitar and vocally (he and Bruce trade verses).
Then we are into quieter territory with The Wall, a war-veteran tribute song which Bruce wrote in the ‘90s, and is given a nice ‘Devils & Dust’-era sound, and a heartfelt vocal. The album finishes as it starts; with a cover, an echo-drenched version of Dream Baby Dream that doesn’t quite cut it for this reviewer. But while not perfect, there is plenty to savour in this interim release from the Boss.