x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Get your hopes up for Bruce Springsteen’s new album

The 64-year-old's 18th studio album is another impassioned affair dripping with engine-room grease and life-affirming sentiments. 

Bruce Springsteen performing in Australia last year. Dan Peled / EPA
Bruce Springsteen performing in Australia last year. Dan Peled / EPA

Jumbling cover versions, reworkings of some of his old songs and new material recorded while touring in Australia last year – on paper, Bruce Springsteen’s 18th studio album sounds like a holding exercise. Springsteen isn’t a “let’s phone this one in” kind of guy, however, hence High Hopes is another impassioned affair dripping with engine-room grease and life-­affirming sentiments. 

A familiar, no-surrender-to-adversity stance galvanises the title track as brass and taut electric guitars share an urgent, relentless riff. “I want to have a wife / I want to have some kids / look in their eyes and know they have a chance,” roars Springsteen, now 64, covering a song by the Los Angeles-based band Havalina. He’s still walking the line between rock star and blue-collar union rep.

The prominence given to the guitar of the politicised virtuoso and former Rage Against the Machine linchpin Tom Morello has already split the room. Morello toured with Springsteen and the E Street Band last year, standing in for the guitarist Steve Van Zandt. Springsteen has said Morello became his “muse”, but perhaps the comment was also designed to gently chide Van Zandt and keep him on his toes. While Springsteen, Morello and co were touring Oz, Van Zandt was in Norway filming more of Lilyhammer, a TV series in which he plays a former New York gangster trying to go straight.

It’s the epic take on Springsteen’s own, previously acoustic song The Ghost of Tom Joad that sees Morello really let loose, but while his soloing certainly impresses, electronically treated, 1990s guitar histrionics seem a risky and incongruous addition to a palette that already has lilting Celtic strings (Hunter of Invisible Game), and carefully salvaged saxophone work from the late E Street Band giant, Clarence Clemons (Harry’s Place).

Elsewhere, standouts include a spectacular take on Just Like Fire Would, a song written by Springsteen’s “favourite early Australian punk band”, The Saints, and the refurbished Bruce original American Skin (41 Shots). Beginning with a drum-loop and airy synth pads reminiscent of his 1993 hit Streets of Philadelphia, American Skin was originally written after the NYPD’s controversial 1999 shooting of an unarmed Guinea immigrant, Amadou Diallo.

The Wall, Springsteen’s heart-on-sleeve tribute to one of his childhood heroes, the late Jersey Shore rocker Walter Cichon, is also superb, but in time High Hopes will likely be seen as a curio, a slight aberration. A tad below par for The Boss it may be, but it’s much more than a stopgap.