"High Hopes" isn't just the name of Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album.
It's also an accurate summation of the feelings with which fans greet any a new Springsteen offering. Over his incredible 40-year-plus career, The Boss has trained us to expect nothing less than greatness.
And he usually meets or exceeds these expectations. That was certainly true in the earliest stages of the 21st century, as Springsteen dealt three straight aces -- 2002's "The Rising" (ranked by some as the artist's greatest work), 2005's "Devils and Dust" and 2006's "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions."
"High Hopes," which hits stores on Jan. 14, isn't in the same league with that trio of modern classics. It's more in line with three post-"Seeger" outings -- 2007's "Magic," 2009's "Working on a Dream" and 2012's "Wrecking Ball" -- all solid-enough affairs that contained equal amounts of magic and mediocrity (at least by Springsteen's high standards).
"High Hopes" is a bit better than those three previous outings, but it's not a classic.
It feels like Springsteen was cleaning out his closet with this album. But, then, few can boast a closet like Springsteen's. "High Hopes" is chock full of old songs that never found a home on previous recordings. Most of these songs probably weren't good enough to make the cut. For instance, "American Skin (41 Shots)," a tune about the shooting of young African-American Amadou Diallo by four New York City police officers, has been floating around on E Street Band concert set lists since 1999, but lacks the punch of Springsteen's best political numbers.
The album opens with the anthemic title track, which is nothing less than a first-tier arena rocker. It might be telling, however, to note that Springsteen -- one of the greatest songwriters in rock history -- turned to another's song book for the title track ("High Hopes" was written by self-described "gothic blues" artist Tim Scott McConnell). It could be a signal that even a well as deep as Springsteen's can occasionally run dry.
That feeling is underscored by the second track, "Harry's Place," a high-gloss offering that sounds like something Don Henley would have written for a "Miami Vice" TV episode in the 1980s.
Things improve after Track 3 ("American Skin") as Springsteen pours his trademark passion into the rocker "Just Like Fire Would" -- a song written by Chris J. Bailey and originally recorded by his Australian alt-rock act the Saints -- and then begins to flip through textures and styles in mostly convincing fashion. There's the meditative, mesmerizing "Down in the Hole," followed by the great gospel workout "Heaven's Wall" and then the friendly, folksy "Frankie Fell in Love."
Springsteen's voice -- which is nothing less than a national treasure -- sounds incredibly strong throughout the album. The music is just as mighty, as Springsteen is once again accompanied by the E Street Band (as well as other players).
The highlight of the album is the new take on the classic "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which is done as a debut with Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Listening to Morello's guitar work on this song is alone worth the price of admission. Morello is also featured on several other tracks on the album.
It all adds up to another worthy addition to what already ranks as one the greatest catalogs in all of popular music. It might not be the Boss' best, or even close to it, but it's certainly one should live up to the "High Hopes" of Springsteen fans everywhere.
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