There isn't another Bruce Springsteen album like High Hopes. Cobbled together from covers -- of other songwriters along with the Boss himself ("American Skin [41 Shots]" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" are both revived) -- and outtakes from the last decade, High Hopes doesn't have the cohesion or gilded surfaces of Wrecking Ball, but neither is it quite a clearinghouse of leftovers. Inspired in part by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who has proven to be a brother in arms to Springsteen, as well as a substitute for Steven Van Zandt in the E-Street Band, High Hopes certainly bears the proud stamp of Morello, both in its workingman's politics and in its cinematic sound. Much of this record oscillates between the moody and militant, particularly in the politically charged numbers, which are often colored by percussive guitar squalls. Here, the RATM guitarist often resembles a Nils Lofgren stripped of blues or lyricism -- think of the gusts of noise on "Tunnel of Love" without any melodicism -- and that's a bracing change for Springsteen, who has shown interest in atmospherics but usually when they're coming from keyboards, not six strings. Such sociological talk suggests High Hopes is nothing but rallying cries and downhearted laments, but the fascinating thing about this unkempt collection is how these protest songs and workingman's anthems are surrounded by intimate tunes, ranging from a cover of the Saints' latter-day "Just Like Fire Would" to a strangely soothing interpretation of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream." Morello reportedly had as much to do with the inclusion of these covers as he did with the record's set pieces -- a stirring "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "American Skin" (which can't help but seem like a reference to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in this context), and "High Hopes," a Tim Scott McConnell song first recorded in the '90s -- and there's a certain sober passion that ties all these songs together but, in turn, it makes the rest of the record all the more compelling because the pieces simply don't fit. There's the rousing Gaelic rock of "This Is Your Sword," sounding a bit like a rejected closing credit theme for The Wire; "Down in the Hole," which rides the same train-track rhythm as "I'm on Fire;" the complicated waltz of "Hunter of Invisible Game," softer and stranger than much of the rest here; "Harry's Place," a bit of synthesized Sopranos noir that sounds much older than its ten years; and the absolutely glorious "Frankie Fell in Love," as open-hearted and romantic a song as Springsteen has ever written. Strictly speaking, these 12 songs don't cohere into a mood or narrative but after two decades of deliberate, purposeful albums, it's rather thrilling to hear Springsteen revel in a mess of contradictions.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Atlanta Strings
feat: Atlanta Strings