Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Older You Get, The More It Means

"The older you get, the more it means."

Bruce Springsteen said those words last summer in Kilkenny, Ireland, wrapping up one leg of what is fast turning into his version of Dylan's "never ending tour."  He was talking about singing and performing, but he could easily have been talking about his fans.  Even at this late date, with Bruce's spot in the rock pantheon secure, there's a little thrill with the release of each new album, not to mention a little anxiety.  After all these years, will this finally be the lousy album?  Will this be the one where you think to yourself, "man, he should have left that one in the studio?"  Right now he's immersed in what is probably the most prolific phase of his recording career, on a fairly set schedule of one new album every two years.  He wouldn't be the first great artist to release a piece of crap; it happens.

I'm happy to say that "High Hopes" is not that album.  I tend to overrate Springsteen albums upon their release, but this one is really a pleasant surprise.  I'll admit to having been a little worried upon reading that the album would be comprised of unreleased songs, cover versions, and re-recordings of a couple of songs in the Springsteen pantheon.  Spanning two producers, even (Brendan O'Brien and Ron Aniello), and two producers whose earlier Springsteen recordings sounded markedly different.

O ye of little faith.

I'll wait a while before assigning this classic status, but there's little doubt that it's a damn good album.  It flows together well, and it certainly sounds radio-friendly, although in this day and age I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense to say something like that.  The cover versions ("High Hopes," "Just Like Fire Would," "Dream Baby Dream") sound like Bruce could have written them, and they fit in just fine.  Their importance to the album can't be underestimated; it can't be a coincidence that Bruce bookends the album with the first and third songs on the list.

The garage rock of "Frankie Fell in Love" would have fit in just fine on side two of "The River," and its lightness and brevity help balance some of the album's deeper new songs like "Down in the Hole" (from "The Rising" era, with the lines "The sun upon your shoulder/Empty city skyline/The day rips apart/A dark and bloody arrow pierced my heart") and "The Wall," a song (based on an idea from Joe Grushecky) about visiting the Vietnam Memorial and remembering an old friend.

Songs as powerful as "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" could easily have overwhelmed the album with their power, but they don't feel out of place.  The recording of the former pays tribute to the magnificent live version, while sounding fresh and modern.  The latter is a Tom Morello-driven powerhouse that gives this great song the recording it deserves.  I'm a bigger fan of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" album than most, but there's little doubt that this is the version that I'll turn to first from now on.  The things that Morello can do with his guitar are beyond my comprehension, and his vocal is a nice counterpart to Bruce's - emphasizing the bleak landscape of the song.

Morello appears on 7 of the album's 12 tunes, and his signature sound definitely gives the E Street band a dimension that it hasn't had before, even with the great Nils Lofgren.  You're never going to mistake Morello for another guitarist, but he doesn't sound out of place.  It's almost scary to think about what the band might sound like if he, Stevie Van Zandt, Lofgren and Bruce all play together during the upcoming tours, but if you're moving closer to advanced decrepitude like me, you'll want to have your earplugs handy.

And then there's "Dream Baby Dream."  In Bruce's version, it's a very simple song, but it is a wonderful coda to the album.  It's a beautiful song, and you can almost imagine Bruce singing it in a small saloon somewhere, eyes fixed on his baby out in the audience.  I'm not sure why I find it so moving, but I can certainly imagine it closing a few shows this year.

Discussions about where this fits into the Springsteen pantheon can wait.  For now, there's little doubt that come year's end, "High Hopes" will be among the year's best albums.  And that's good enough.

Come on, we gotta keep the light burning.

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