Springsteen gets lost: The rootlessness of "High Hopes"

The Boss' latest album isn't grounded in a sense of place, and that makes it a frustrating listen

Published January 26, 2014 7:00PM (EST)

  (AP/John Minchillo)
(AP/John Minchillo)

When Bruce Springsteen announced his new album, “High Hopes,” there was an uncommon tone to the reactions: wariness. “High Hopes” immediately presented itself as an oddity of a record — a collection of covers, leftovers from his last few releases, and a few rearranged tracks, with a title actually derived from one of those covers. Something about that fact made it seem as if it wasn't a full entry in Springsteen's canon. The notion that an artist known for his specific brand of storytelling was defining his record with another songwriter's words seemed to condemn “High Hopes” as a detour before it arrived. The grab-bag nature of it compounded this feeling, given his historically exacting nature when it comes to sequencing tracks or staying true to a specific arc over the course of a record. Even for myself and those of my friends who readily identify Bruce as our favorite artist, it was too easy to make halfhearted jokes about how a title like “High Hopes” attached to an album such as this seemed to challenge us to have anything but low hopes.

Correspondingly, the tone of interviews leading up to “High Hopes” have almost been preemptively defensive. Springsteen and his producer of late, Ron Aniello, gave extensive interviews to Rolling Stone, both making the case that the songs collected on “High Hopes” do actually tell a connected story. For Springsteen, this meant tying together the loose ends of the last 15 years or so — the fact that these were the lost dogs was, in itself, the story. There was something in the air, though -- a sense that they knew they were offering up something they had to actively sell to fans, and that never bodes well.

The prominence of covers is a big departure for Springsteen, sure, but some of those other qualities weren't as different as they were made out to be. Throughout his career  (as he pointed out himself in the Rolling Stone interview), Springsteen has recorded lingering songs from former projects for new ones (songs from “The River” like “Sherry Darling” and “Independence Day” date back to “Darkness on the Edge of Town”) or as springboards for something else entirely (“Easy Money,” originally written for a record that has yet to see release, became the genesis point for 2012's “Wrecking Ball”). What's conspicuous when you listen to “High Hopes,” though, is the overbearing presence of Tom Morello, whom Springsteen has repeatedly referred to as a muse of sorts for the new record. As much as those in the E Street camp seem to feel Morello helped bring some modern edge to their sound, his guitar theatrics are awkwardly lopped all over Springsteen songs in which they make no sense. It's not quite enough to sink the experience, as a slew of reviewers have alleged, but it is enough to hinder it, and to tell you all you need to know about “High Hopes”: that it's a confused and confusing album. It's not terrible, but it's not his best work, and is indeed best enjoyed as a stopgap release of hit or miss material rather than as a full-fledged release.

That's the conspicuous stuff. What's less noticeable, perhaps, is how “High Hopes” was recorded, and the circumstances surrounding its inception in general, even though those facts, as well, have been dissected in interviews. The reason Morello is so heavily involved goes back to the E Street Band's 2013 tour of Australia. Steve Van Zandt had to sit that one out due to filming obligations with “Lilyhammer,” so Springsteen called Morello — who had previously guested onstage for seething takes on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Death to My Hometown,” and had soloed on the “Wrecking Ball” track “Jack of All Trades.” Morello suggested they revive Springsteen's version of “High Hopes,” a song by an obscure L.A.-based band called the Havalinas that the E Street Band had originally covered for the (also obscure) 1996 EP “Blood Brothers.” Springsteen always seems to be working on one thing or another these days, but Morello's contribution seemed to inspire his direction. Soon, the Boss became interested in giving a proper studio treatment to a set of his lost songs, and Morello's guitar was supposedly the skeleton key that made everything work where it hadn't before.

You'll notice a trend, then: that “High Hopes” requires a lot of explanation. It's a shaky whole built from a contorted assembly of trivia and music that goes back nearly two decades. You might also start to notice the far-flung nature of its origins: Australia, a Southern California band as source material, Midwesterner-turned-Angeleno Morello as muse, a famous Jersey native at the helm. It gets even more spread out the more you parse it. For the first time, Springsteen recorded while on the road, having spontaneous recording sessions in Brisbane and Sydney. While the band was abroad, Aniello might check in via iChat. When they were in the country, people recorded all over, separately. Various members lived and recorded in Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York and Nashville. Many of these songs might be unstuck from time, but they are just as much unstuck from place. In either case, there is no specific center grounding “High Hopes.”

In the context of Springsteen's career and given his tendency to revisit old material, that murkiness of place is one of the more striking — and, potentially, detrimental — characteristics of “High Hopes,” because the role of place in Springsteen's music has always been crucial. There are, of course, the classic settings: depressed New Jersey towns, the enchantment of the shore and the boardwalk, the mythology of New York City streets in the '60s and '70s. The realist and romantic strains in Springsteen's music alike stem from these recurring locales. They're the text he continues to draw inspiration from, whether it's the factory towns of the tri-state area giving way to post-industrial dilapidation over the course of his career, or the events of 9/11 giving his music a new sense of purpose in the 21st century. In some senses, you could argue that the latter example, in particular, is one of Springsteen talking about America in broad strokes, as an abstraction. But whenever Springsteen plays with legends and classic Americana imagery, it is rooted in the experience of the place both he and his music inextricably hail from. The desolation of the American spirit and the Midwest plains alike on “Nebraska” or the spectral archetypes walking through the Southwest desert of “Devils and Dust” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” are both extensions of stories he'd already told. They make sense, in his work, only in relation to his Northeast home. They are the haunted expanse at the end of the highways every Jersey-born character in his music dreams of escaping down.

Whenever Springsteen departed too far from this template, his work has weakened. Springsteen spent a good portion of the '90s — his wilderness years, the least relevant and productive stretch of his career — relocated to Los Angeles. Combined with his decision to work without the E Street Band, fans took this as actual betrayal. The Boss had abandoned New Jersey. And you can hear it in the records from this era. “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” have the sort of misguided, dated slickness you'd expect from a small-town rocker who'd started living near Hollywood, and they're also his most vacuous releases. Some of the long-standing signifiers remain, particularly on “Lucky Town,” but they sound hollow, forced. That can be attributed partially to the lack of the E Street Band, and partially to a lack of inspiration as Springsteen faced a midlife creative crisis. But, at the core of it, Springsteen had wandered far from home. Where his songwriting had once deftly moved between stories of real lives and real towns, and then infusing those same places and lives with myth, his physical departure made him lose the plot.

Even as “High Hopes” is unstuck from place, though, that doesn't mean its songs don't have a specificity to them. Many of them have their distinct roots, it's just that those roots are disparate enough that the DNA of the album is mismatched from the start. The creation of “High Hopes” was, functionally, all over the map, and so too are the songs themselves.  “Just Like Fire Would” is Australian in origin, and the Californian “High Hopes” became recontextualized as Australian, too, in E Street terms. The cover of Suicide's “Dream Baby Dream” means New York in the late '70s; an outtake from “The Rising,” “Down in the Hole” likely refers to New York as well, though a far different one. “American Skin (41 Shots)” originally meant New York -- but revived, in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it also means Florida now. Where “Wrecking Ball” made repeated use of folk structures to mingle the realism and romanticism of its themes, the Celtic flourishes of “This Is Your Sword” make little sense here. Morello's presence plays a large role in the decontextualization of place on “High Hopes.” To any Bruce listener familiar with his work before he began popping up onstage with the E Street Band, his guitar playing immediately evokes Rage Against the Machine, and a whole lot of sun-drenched So Cal rap-rock and funk and metal that's simply intrusive to the world of Springsteen's music.

Ironically, for an artist who has so often written about seeking transformation and escape through movement, the on-the-run nature of the making of “High Hopes” as well as its lack of geographical focus is what makes it a meandering listen. It's not that “High Hopes” draws inspiration from radically different places in every song, but that it flits between things for seemingly no purpose. The mere presence of faraway places in Springsteen's music isn't anything new or undesired, either. The American desert of “Devils and Dust” the album is all the more striking for its contrast against the Iraqi one in “Devils and Dust” the song. Memories and shadows of Vietnam famously haunt “Born in the U.S.A.” explicitly, and more implicitly in any of Springsteen's late '70s or early '80s output. But in those moments there is some sense of gravity tying everything back together. It's about where you've gone and what you've carried back home with you. There is no such organizing principle to “High Hopes.” You can hear the distance between the places it represents and the places where it was born. It's an album of many voices calling out, but none speaking or listening to the others.

There's a way to look at “High Hopes” as just a fun, tossed-off thing — not Springsteen's migratory blues, but instead a sketchbook that stitches together loose strands from across 20 years and a handful of continents. And for most artists that would be fine. Do you still get to make records like that when you're Bruce, though? Since 2001, Springsteen has operated as a living icon — even if his recent output isn't as strong as his work at his peak, we still find ourselves looking to him for his particular take on our world in real time. Statement albums  like “The Rising” or “Magic” or “Wrecking Ball” couldn't ever be seen as pretentious in his hands; rather it's his unquenched ambition to deconstruct our contemporary experience that makes his music more vital than most any other classic rocker can claim. This is what we've been trained to expect from 21st century Springsteen.

Maybe he does see a story connecting these songs. It's different for us listeners, though, after the specificity of “Wrecking Ball” or “The Rising.” A freewheeling tour album would be fun, sure. But “High Hopes” isn't that. The labors of Springsteen and Aniello to define the story of the album are a worrisome hint. If “Wrecking Ball” was Springsteen taking a stand, grappling with the post-recession climate, what is this as a follow-up? We look to Springsteen for bigger things than this somewhat listless album. Answers, maybe, but also just the sense that there's still an artist ambitious and capable enough to speak to all the facets and vicissitudes of the American experience in the 21st century. “High Hopes” isn't that. It's the sound of Bruce himself being lost in the world.

By Ryan Leas

Ryan Leas (@RyanLeas) is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also written for GQ.com, Stereogum, and the Village Voice's music blog Sound of the City.


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