Sound — 8
"High Hopes" is a record that the Boss himself has described as "a bit of an anomaly." Recorded between legs of The E Street Band's mammoth Wrecking Ball tour, it is the first Springsteen album to be comprised entirely of covers, outtakes and "reimagined" versions of songs from past albums. To be honest, that's not a great sign. If an artist announces that their next album will be a collection of such odds and sods, it usually means they're running on empty. Yet, "High Hopes" shows that Springsteen has still got plenty of juice left in the tank, even if it sometimes feels like a choppy ride.
Probably because of the bit-y nature of its recording sessions, High Hopes is rarely a flowing album. While 2012's "Wrecking Ball" was a coherent listening experience, the latest offering is rag-tag selection of disparate songs. It's all over the place stylistically. Rootsy tracks like "Hunter of Invisible Game" clash with stadium anthems, such as the reworked "The Ghost of Tom Joad." "Down in the Hole" evokes the slick, synth driven production of "Born in the USA," while "The Wall" is in many ways reminiscent of the understated delivery of "Nebraska." Given the somewhat disjointed nature of the album, you have to wonder whether it would have been better served as a series of EPs.
Fortunately, while "High Hopes" is stylistically and sequentially discrepant, the quality of the songs on offer is largely consistent. Indeed, moments of the album are up there with Springsteen's best. The rousing title track is a great example of the Boss's ability to write an anthem. The epic, near 8 minute version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which makes prominent use of the guitar and vocals of Tom Morello, is an improvement over the original acoustic version. "Frankie Fell in Love" is a welcome call back to tracks like "Rosalita" and "Hungry Heart" on which The E Street Band shines.
But where "High Hopes" really pays off is in its quieter moments. "Hunter of Invisible Game," a track which evokes "Desire" era Bob Dylan, feels like new territory for Springsteen, and is an undoubted album highlight. "The Wall" is beautifully introspective, stripped back and personal in a way that the always bombastic "Wrecking Ball" never managed to achieve.
Lyrics — 8
While "Wrecking Ball" was a straightforwardly angry affair lyrically, "High Hopes" is more varied in its storytelling. In that sense, the album is much richer than it's predecessor, feeling more like classic Springsteen. Perhaps unsurprising, given the presence of Tom Morello, the Boss still rages against the machine on tracks like "American Skin" (which, while originally written about the shooting of Amadou Diallo, has been resurrected in recent years in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin) and "The Grapes of Wrath" referencing Tom Joad. Yet, there is also warmth and humor throughout, such as the moment where the Boss envisages Shakespeare and Einstein debating true love in small town America on "Frankie Fell in Love":
"Einstein and Shakespeare
Sitting having a beer
Einstein trying to figure out the number that adds up to this
Shakespeare said, 'Man it all starts with a kiss'"
Combine that with the introspection of "Hunter of Invisible Game" ("We all come up a little short and we go down hard, These days I spend my time skipping through the dark") with the profound sense of loss expressed in "The Wall" ("Cigarettes and a bottle of beer, This poem that I wrote for you, This black stone and these hard tears, Are all I've got left now of you") and you have a substantial body of lyrics that reward repeated listening.
Overall Impression — 8
"High Hopes" might lack the cohesion of "Wrecking Ball," but a money grabbing stopgap it most definitely ain't. While the scattershot nature of the track listing means it takes a while to get into, repeated listens reveal a number of songs that rank amongst the best the Boss has released in recent years.