By MARK GUARINO Music Writer | Chicago Sun-Times
January 13, 2014 1:50PM
No doubt Bruce Springsteen owns an impressive record collection. In interviews, and during his marathon performances, he regularly tosses off quicksilver references from the British Invasion through the first wave of punk with the authority of someone who inhales music lineage like it’s candy.
Moving a finger over the spine of those past records, including some of his own, appears to be the inspiration for “High Hopes” (Columbia), his 18th studio album, released Tuesday. Like many album ideas hatched on the road — this one, reportedly, during the Australian leg of last year’s “Wrecking Ball” world tour — it succeeds because of its spontaneous spirit, but suffers from its dim ambition.
Rather than a new set of original songs, this is a collection of covers, re-recordings and material formerly showcased during live shows but never recorded. For strict diehards, that’s golden loot. There’s a lot to like, particularly the covers. “Just Like Fire Would,” by Australian alt-rock band the Saints, is the freshest Springsteen has sounded in quite some time. And who knew he favored nihilist synth-punk duo Suicide, transforming “Dream Baby Dream” into an ending hymnal of hope.
Many of the originals present a Springsteen we rarely hear: the grand “Hunter of Invisible Game” and “Heaven’s Wall,” a thrilling rock song infused with a gospel chorus. Fans of his “Seeger Sessions” band will discover “This Is Your Sword,” a Celtic-infused original, is as good as anything on that 2006 album.
Because “High Hopes” casts a wide net over Springsteen’s last decade, other songs feel scattershot in representing previous chapters. For some recordings, deceased saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici even appear in the credits.
“Harry’s Place” and “Frankie Fell in Love” are as playful as any other E Street romp, but not as special; there’s a feeling we’ve been to this street party before, the first stop with “Rosalita” and ending at “Mary’s Place.”
“When Harry speaks, it’s Harry’s streets/In Harry’s house, it’s Harry’s rules/You don’t want to be around, brother, when Harry schools,” he sings. There’s a reason why this, among others, didn’t made the cut in the first round.
“American Skin (41 Shots),” a song Springsteen has already released twice as a live version and a previous studio version, reflects his feelings on the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed teenager in the Bronx. But remove the headlines associated with the song and it becomes allegorical grey matter: “You can get killed just for living in your American skin” is a lyric that professes to say something, but says nothing.
Eight of the 12 songs feature Tom Morello, the guitarist from both Rage Against the Machine and many post-band projects (remember Audioslave?) who became a frequent presence on Springteen’s recent touring cycles and, in Australia last year, temporarily replaced Steve Van Zandt.
But does this band need an over-anxious guitar god? Morello’s guitar virtuosity is well documented, but his tendency to overwhelm prevails. An example: “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the dusty folk song Springsteen revamped live, often with Morello, is now a showcase for the guitarist’s wiggly accents and flamboyant runs. Unlike guitarists Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, who have shown a need to serve the song, Morello frequently works directly in reverse.
Strip Springsteen’s name off “High Hopes” and replace it with an unknown up-and-comer, and this album would stun for its authority. But like any veteran with his back against a multi-decade legacy, Springsteen is burdened by his past. Planting both feet inside an ungainly touring band (18 people and counting now!) and borrowing songs from the vault, this is less about freshening up than it is about checking in.