Tom Morello was driving around Los Angeles in late 2012 when "High Hopes" – one of the most obscure songs in Bruce Springsteen’s vast catalog, originally released on a forgotten 1996 EP – came on E Street Radio, the SiriusXM channel devoted to Springsteen. "I was reminded what a jam it was," says the Rage Against the Machine guitarist, who was preparing to serve as a temporary replacement for Steve Van Zandt on the E Street Band’s 2013 tour of Australia. "In the middle of the night, I texted Bruce and said, 'What do you think about 'High Hopes' for the tour?’ He agreed we should put it in the set." Little did Morello realize that a new version of "High Hopes" would become the title track of Springsteen’s 18th studio album, due out January 14th.
High Hopes is a first for Springsteen: a studio album composed entirely of covers, outtakes and radically reimagined versions of fan-favorite songs from past albums and tours. High points include a cover of Seventies punk pioneers Suicide ("Dream Baby Dream"); songs he originally wrote for 2002's The Rising ("Harry's Place," "Down in the Hole"); and searing new takes of concert staples "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and "American Skin (41 Shots)." "The best way to describe this record is that's its a bit of an anomaly," says Springsteen. "But not much. I don't really work linearly like a lot of people do."
Springsteen has always written and recorded significantly more songs than can fit on to whatever album he's creating at the moment. "I have a lot of this music on a computer," he says. "I bring it out on the road to amuse myself. Very often, if I have nothing to do late at night I'll bring it up and look at different bodies of music."
The songs that began catching Springsteen's attention were largely recorded after he reunited with the E Street Band in 1999. "The songs were relatively current and had a similar sound picture," he says. "I was interested in putting this material together in some form because it sounded like it all fit together . . . You have to imagine that when I'm home or done with a tour I go into a studio and I'm surrounded by paintings that I've sorta half-finished. There might be something wrong with this one and I didn't have time to finish this one. When I go into my studio, I'm surrounded by all my music that I haven't released. I wait to see what's going to speak to me."
In December of 2012, he called producer Ron Aniello, whom he first worked with on 2012’s Wrecking Ball, and asked him to sort through about 15 songs. "He said, 'I’m on the road right now – just fool around with them and see what you think you can do,'" says Aniello. "Although they didn't fit the particular story he was telling for each album – you know how crazy he is about having each album tell a linear story. But these were fantastic songs."
Springsteen – who has grown close with Tom Morello ever since they first performed together in 2008 – wound up having the guitarist play on six songs, including new renditions of "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." "He became a filter that I ran my music through," says Springsteen. "He would send the songs back to me with a very current slant on them . . . He jolted those songs into the now. He's one of the few guitarists that creates a world by himself. It's like the Edge or Pete Townshend or Johnny Marr. The E Street Band is a big house, but when Tom is onstage he builds another room."
In March 2013, Springsteen and E Street toured Australia with Morello. Everyone was impressed by the crowd’s enthusiastic reactions to the new, Morello-assisted arrangement of "High Hopes" (written in the late Eighties by folk singer Tim Scott McConnell) and an amped-up cover of "Just Like Fire Would" by Aussie punk legends the Saints. Springsteen called up engineer Nick DiDia – an old friend who'd recently relocated to Sydney – and booked some impromptu sessions. "We had no plans to record," says Springsteen. "But I found a hook to bring these songs to life and I was anxious to get to work on them."
Between revamped versions of the studio outtakes he had sent Aniello and new recordings of the covers and live favorites that Morello was infusing with fresh energy onstage, Springsteen realized he had enough material for an album. There was just one problem: The E Street Band had worldwide dates booked for the rest of the year. So he decided to record the entire LP between shows – something he’d never tried before – with members of the band overdubbing new parts at Aniello's Los Angeles studio or Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey during breaks. "Previously, everything was like when I was a kid," says Springsteen. "I needed the peas to be on one plate and the corn had to be on another plate and I didn't like them to touch. That's where I was coming from. I thought everything had to be very segregated."
For Morello, getting to work with Springsteen more closely over the past year has been the thrill of a lifetime. "I am not a casual Bruce Springsteen fan –I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan," he says. "And 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' is one of his best songs. It cuts to the core of his social-justice writing. This version starts as a plaintive ballad, which feels like a lament, and becomes a full-bore rocker that feels like a threat."
A few weeks after High Hopes arrives, Springsteen and the E Street Band – with Morello in tow – will kick off a five-week tour of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One thing that's not on the books right now: any dates in the U.S., where they haven’t played since late 2012.
"We're looking around now to see what we might do," says Springsteen. "I don't want to say 'yes' because I don't want to disappoint people, but I certainly don't want to rule it out either. We're looking closely since there's places we missed on the last tour. We didn't get to Texas, where I love to play. We didn't get to Florida either. It might be fun to get back to some of those places."
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of Springsteen’s smash Born in the U.S.A., but his manager, Jon Landau, says there are no plans to celebrate that with a deluxe reissue – at least not yet. "There's ongoing work on a River box set," says Landau. "Maybe we’ll do that first. And we're doing some remastering work on his first two albums [1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle] as we speak. Those will be forthcoming."
Springsteen didn't release a new studio album during the seven years between The Ghost of Tom Joad and The Rising, but he doesn't imagine anything like that will ever happen again. "It's like that old story," he says. "The light from the oncoming train focuses the mind."