Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album is a portrait of the artist at the top of his 21st-century game: rock-soul dynamite and finely drawn pathos bound by familiar, urgent themes (national crisis, private struggle, the daily striving for more perfect union) and the certain-victor’s force in Springsteen’s singing. High Hopes is also a deep look back over Springsteen’s past decade, his best onstage and record since the first, with a keen eye turned forward. The cumulative effect of this mass of old, borrowed, blue and renewed – covers, recent outtakes and redefining takes on two classics – is retrospect with a cutting edge, running like one of the singer’s epic look-ma-no-set-list gigs: full of surprises, all with a reason for being there.
Much of High Hopes comes from the what-was-he-thinking shelf: unreleased songs cut for albums going back to 2002’s The Rising, revived with freshening parts. It’s hard to see how “Frankie Fell in Love,” a frat-rock riot, and the letter from rock bottom “Down in the Hole” (“My Hometown” with less light) ever got the chop. But Springsteen effectively recasts this material with the folk-soul-gospel-army might of his current E Street big band. The background-vocal choir puts a literal finishing touch on the warrior-hymn charge of “Heaven’s Wall.” In the gangsters convention “Harry’s Place,” recent E Street recruit Tom Morello fires chain-saw bursts of guitar across meaty peals of sax originally laid down by the late Clarence Clemons. And that’s Danny Federici, who died in 2008, playing organ on “The Wall,” a requiem for one of Springsteen’s Jersey-bar-band mentors, underscoring the singer’s belief in the unbroken chains running through his band.
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Springsteen revisits two older songs with dramatic results: the acoustic title track from 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, and “American Skin (41 Shots),” his response to the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo by New York City police. Morello previously electrified “Tom Joad” with Rage Against the Machine; he is a key trigger in this heaving-Phil Spector detonation as well. Springsteen gives him a verse to sing, adding a younger, strident tension to his own fury, while Morello’s soloing – scouring and elegiac – puts a new exclamation point on the pledge of righteous vengeance, the way Jimi Hendrix forever altered the Armageddon in “All Along the Watchtower.” Morello is on “American Skin” too, but this version is Springsteen’s triumph as a bandleader – sculpting that live force with rich studio textures – and a topical lyricist, mining new headlines (Trayvon Martin, NSA surveillance, the numbing cycle of school shootings) reverberating in there now.
High Hopes starts and ends with covers, a first on a Springsteen studio album. But the title song, a 1990 rebel-folk gallop by the Havalinas, and Suicide’s closing mantra, “Dream Baby Dream,” are fighters’ promises, and they fit Springsteen and this record like weathered boxing gloves. “Give me help/Give me strength/Give a soul a night of fearless sleep,” he demands in the former, in a crusty, arcing howl, like a guy who’s been doing this for a long time and is real tired of asking nice.