AS IS now the way with new material from music’s biggest names, Bruce Springsteen’s latest studio album arrives next week with little fanfare.
Young pretenders, such as Lady Gaga, may still promote their material with hoopla and hype, but those at the very top put out records without teasing their fans for months beforehand.
And, like David Bowie and Beyoncé, who sprang surprises last year by releasing unexpected albums, The Boss sounds all the better for the absence of any distracting preamble.
High Hopes is not a traditional Springsteen album. Put together during breaks from his recent world tour, it contains three unlikely covers, plus reworkings of two familiar tracks.
The other seven numbers are freshly minted, although some were originally written for either 2002’s The Rising or 2012’s Wrecking Ball. But any fears that they are merely warmed-up leftovers are quickly dispelled.
Far from being throw-away, this is a big, confident record that underlines the depth of Springsteen’s songwriting talent and his enduring excellence as a performer.
“This is our best unreleased material from the past decade – songs that deserved a home and a hearing,” he says.
And, with regulars the E Street Band (supplemented by the effects-heavy guitar work of Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine), High Hopes has its own distinctive sound. Morello’s presence is vital, Springsteen even going as far as suggesting that his playing was his “muse” for this album.
There are also welcome contributions from Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, the two well-loved E Streeters to have died in recent years.
Producer Brendan O’Brien cleverly uses archival material to graft Clemons’ familiar tenor sax on to Harry’s Place before doing the same with Federici’s haunting organ sound on Down in the Hole, helping to add a warm, nostalgic glow to High Hopes.
The album is book-ended by two cover versions. It opens with the uplifting title track, a bluesy rockabilly number originally by Tim Scott McConnell of the folk band The Havalinas. It closes with a cover of the New York punk duo Suicide’s 1979 single, Dream Baby Dream, their brooding, electronic original transformed by Springsteen into a romantic anthem of hope.
His ability to impose his own personality on other people’s songs extends to the album’s third cover. Just Like Fire Would was first recorded by the Australian punk combo The Saints, and, with Morello adding chiming, 12-string guitars, it has the fairground-carousel sound of the E Street Band.
Of the two revamped songs, the best is American Skin (41 Shots), a ballad about the innocent victim of a New York police shooting.
A fresh take on 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad is less convincing. Once an acoustic ballad, it has been reworked as a bombastic rock anthem, with an over-the-top solo by Morello. Elsewhere, there are hints of the gospel album Springsteen scrapped before making Wrecking Ball, but the strongest moments find him harking back to his early days as a young musician on the New Jersey shore.
Harry’s Place tells a vivid tale of shady, small-town crooks; Frankie Fell In Love, with its rollicking country guitar, signals a return to the simplicity of some of his early albums, most notably The River.
The same goes for The Wall, a touching homage to Walter Cichon, lead singer with the New Jersey band The Motifs.
Cichon went missing in action in Vietnam in 1968, but his music and attitude have long been an inspiration to The Boss.
With its tuneful echoes of past glories, there are times when this album seems almost too familiar. At 64, however, it would be unrealistic to expect Springsteen to reinvent himself with every record.
At its best, High Hopes frames all the things that make him one of the world’s most compelling rock ‘n’ rollers. It will certainly please old admirers, and would make a worthwhile introduction for any new fans. – Daily Mail
• Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform Sunday, January 26, Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 at the Bellville Velodrome, Cape Town. The show then moves to Joburg for a concert on February 1 at FNB Stadium. Note: The Cape Town concerts for January 28 and 29 are already sold out.