Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
Good-time title, sombre message on The Boss' 18th studio album proper...
A spine-jarring rattle of drums and a line of tracer bullets from Tom Morello’s guitar introduce “High Hopes”, the song by Tim Scott McConnell with which Bruce Springsteen opens his 18th studio album. High hopes? If the title suggests a collection of good-time music to follow the bleak anger of 2012’s Wrecking Ball, which poured contempt on the world’s bankers and their fellow instigators of contemporary discontent, it’s hugely misleading. “Give me help, give me strength/Give me a night of fearless sleep”: that’s how the song’s chorus goes, first recorded by Scott McConnell on a solo album in 1987 and again, three years later, by his band, The Havalinas, in a percussion-heavy arrangement that Springsteen copies here. It doesn’t sound like a plea that’s going to be answered any time soon, and the note of barely suppressed desperation is one that persists throughout the album, even in its passages of piledriving energy.
In their origins, at least, these 12 songs form a bit of a patchwork. Three of them are cover versions. A couple of the original songs have been recorded by Springsteen before. Some are familiar from live performances. Seven are previously unheard and unknown. Evidently energised by the success of the long world tour that followed the release of Wrecking Ball, he decided to fashion this motley collection into a new album, starting some from scratch but basing others on previously recorded material (a couple even contain contributions from Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons). The specific influence of the tour is felt in the presence of Morello, who joined the newly expanded E Street Band in the summer of 2012 as a temporary replacement for Steve Van Zandt and seems to have kindled some sort of spark in his temporary employer’s breast.
So this is a proper album, a long way from Tracks, the 1998 anthology of material rejected or otherwise overlooked during Springsteen’s early years, or The Promise, the set of songs passed up on the grounds of being too romantic, too upbeat or otherwise off-topic when he came to assemble Darkness On The Edge of Town in 1978. The impression left by High Hopes is that these are songs speaking to matters on his mind today; the source or age of the material is beside the point. And what’s on his mind is a world seething with dread, its scenes etched in the colours of fire and blood. There’s a sombre edge to almost all these songs, even when the Hammond organ is wailing and the backbeat is a mile wide.
It takes something special for one lead guitarist to cede so much space to another, particularly when someone of Nils Lofgren’s talent is already standing by, and Morello’s presence is crucial to the tone of the album. At 49, he’s hardly a kid, but he’s from another generation and it shows in the way he goes for noises and effects that would be alien to Springsteen. The mutual enjoyment of their collaboration is evident in the volcanic remake of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”, a highlight of their shows together, which opens with a power chord and a lamenting violin before they trade verses and solos, going for broke in a storm of six-string starbursts and fireballs.
Morello’s ability to add atmospheric textures is also to the fore in “Harry’s Place”, perhaps the most impressive of the new songs, a lurid depiction of a New Jersey milieu closer to the back room of the Bada Bing than the dancefloor of the Stone Pony. “You don’t fuck with Harry’s money and you don’t fuck Harry’s girls,” Springsteen sings, against Brendan O’Brien’s purposefully murky production. “These are the rules, this is the world.” There’s a burst of black humour: “Mayor Connor’s on the couch, Father McGowan’s at the bar/Chief Holden’s at the door, checkin’ who the fuck you are…” But as the lights dim, the guitars screech like bandsaws and the door closes behind the singer, the scene is more Abel Ferrara than Quentin Tarantino: a message from a place Springsteen doesn’t usually visit.
“American Skin (41 Shots)”, inspired by the New York police’s killing of the unarmed Amadou Diallo in 1999, was included on Live In New York City two years later and also released in a studio version as a promotional single. Its unexpected revival has a purpose: to comment on the recent acquittal of the man accused of the vigilante-style shooting of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black man, in Florida in February 2012. The passion of this performance is intensified by co-producer Ron Aniello’s synths and loops, with Morello again playing a significant role.
There’s an apocalyptic feeling to “Down In The Hole”, the track that half-buries Federici’s B3 and Clemons’ tenor saxophone in an arrangement full of spectral shadows. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, and their three children, Evan, Jessica and Sam, provide the vocal ensemble behind Bruce, whose own voice is electronically treated before emerging – during the lines “A dark and bloody arrow pierces my heart/The memory of your kisses tears me apart” – in its natural state. These could be the last thoughts of a dying man, lying in “the rain that keeps on fallin’/On twisted bones and blood”, like the hallucinating soldier of Dylan’s “Cross The Green Mountain”. The protagonist of “Hunter Of Invisible Game” is also searching for grace, images of flaming scarecrows and empty cities emerging against the setting of a subdued string arrangement in a minuet for the end of time.
An unexpected cover of The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would” contains the album’s key text – “The night was dark and the land was cold” – with the sound of the E Street Band at full throttle, paradoxically exultant and euphoric. “Heaven’s Wall”, which dates back to the writing sessions that produced The Rising, is another old-fashioned rave-up, but with a Biblical theme: mentions of Gideon, Saul and Canaan, and a repeated exhortation to “Raise your hand!” Raise it for what, exactly? The same question arises during “This Is Your Sword”, a sort of rock’n’roll “Onward Christian Soldiers” (or possibly “Onward Muslim Soldiers”) in which the message – “The times they are dark/Darkness covers the earth/But this world’s filled/With the beauty of God’s work” – is punctuated by Cillian Vallely’s uillean pipes.
A little light relief comes in a great song called “Frankie Fell In Love”, a jovial tale which features Einstein and Shakespeare, sitting together over a couple of beers (“Einstein’s tryin’ to figure out the number that adds up to bliss/Shakespeare says, ‘No, it all starts with a kiss’”). Falling at the album’s mid-point, it’s a break from the intensity that can’t help surfacing elsewhere, and which finally reaches its twin peaks of catharsis in the disillusioned starkness of “The Wall”, a meditation that will resonate with anyone who has visited the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, immediately followed by the album’s closer, “Dream Baby Dream”, the song by Suicide’s Martin Rev and Alan Vega which Springsteen uses to articulate his belief in a different kind of faith: a faith in ourselves and each other.
Why is it impossible to resist the temptation to search for an overarching theme that ties together this collection of superficially dissimilar songs, written and recorded in different times, locations and circumstances? Because that’s how Bruce Springsteen works, always searching within his art for higher and deeper truths. If High Hopes is about anything, it’s the failure of conventional belief systems and the blight of spiritual poverty experienced by all kinds and conditions of people as a result.
Heavy, yes. But he’s happy to carry it. And he carries it off.
How did your relationship with Springsteen begin?
I’ve been a huge fan for a long time. Rage Against The Machine needed some new material to play when we opened up for U2 on the PopMart tour in 1997, and in the light of the fact that we had written no new songs, we did a version of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. It was a smashing success and when we recorded it in a studio with Brendan O’Brien we needed Bruce’s permission to release it. I think he was a little surprised we were fans and that we had homed in on this acoustic ballad of his. That conversation kicked off a dialogue that grew into our friendship.
Where and when did you play live with the E Street Band for the first time?
In 2008, at Anaheim Pond hockey arena in California. I’d met him in a studio in LA a couple of weeks before and he’d made the offhand suggestion that I come up and join them some time. When I saw they were in town very soon, I called them a day or two before and said, “Hey, remember that offer? How about tomorrow?” I don’t usually get nervous before shows, but I was nervous before that one. I suggested “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”, and Bruce afforded me a 172-bar solo. It was a roof-raising moment and over the course of the next few years whenever I was in the same city as Bruce I would play a few songs with them. It was very, very exciting for me, and an honour.
A lot of us have dreamed of playing with the E Street Band. What’s it actually like?
My take is that it’s not a dream come true as it’s nothing I ever dared to dream. I am not a casual Springsteen fan. He is the only friend of mine I subscribe to a fanzine about. I have every conceivable bootleg. To be onstage playing “Born To Run” every night, it’s hard to wrap my head around. My MO for whenever I play with the E Street Band is “Do no harm.” They’ve been a great live band for more than 40 years without me in it. So, first of all, don’t mess it up.
They always make it seem like huge fun, even though the songs are often serious. Is that how it is onstage?
Very much so. The joy they create out of the ether, despite the serious content of much of the material, is something unique to Bruce. His catalogue is huge and he draws liberally from all parts of it, so for me there’s a lot of paying attention and trying to lip-read in the dark what the next song is, and heaven help me when he starts pulling requests from the crowd. It’s certainly helped me grow as an artist.
How did the relationship evolve?
Next I was asked to play guitar on Wrecking Ball. Then when Little Steven was busy with his TV show, Lilyhammer, I was asked to fill in for the 2013 Australian tour. That was the first time I played a full set with the band. Prior to leaving for that tour, Bruce sent over the song “American Skin (41 Shots)” for an undefined project, to play some guitar on. I worked diligently on it and sent it back. He seemed to enjoy it and he kept sending songs for me to play on in my home studio. A short while before leaving for Australia I heard on a satellite radio station an obscure cast-off song called “High Hopes” that sounded like it would lend itself to some Morellian riffage. In the middle of the night I texted Bruce to suggest that he check it out. He liked the idea and it became a staple of the Australian tour. We continued to record, and there was one day in Sydney where the full band plus me recorded “High Hopes” and “Just Like Fire Would”. Over the course of that tour and afterwards in LA, a small catalogue was amassed. It sounded pretty great and that became High Hopes.
If you were allowed to request a song of Bruce’s that you haven’t played live yet, what would it be?
I love “The Promise” and the title track from the Magic album.
Do you discuss politics together?
I’ve maybe talked more about politics with Jon Landau [Springsteen’s manager] than I have with Bruce. We haven’t sat down and talked about Obama’s pluses and minuses or anything like that. Maybe we will this next tour.
INTERVIEW BY RICHARD WILLIAMS
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Rating: 9 / 10