Upon opening a Springsteen album, the Team America theme song should blare obnoxiously at you. Bruce is as Yankee Doodle as Apple Pie, Jay Leno and a one dimensional sense of humour. His blood runs red white and blue, and it always translates in to a distinct sound, one that borrows from a more country biased right hand side, but a huge nod to The Ramones, The Kinks and Grand Funk Railroad on the left. I get the image of US Navy recruits, with fresh buzz cuts and jaw-droppingly rippling muscles shredding electric guitar on a huge frigate in Fort Worth whilst Springsteen runs around in front of them with the flag billowing behind him, in his super hero pomp.
Ok, so you're getting the impression that these are bad things. They aren't! Only he can take something as homogenised as the American culture and turn it in to a living, breathing entity to be wholly proud of, with no sense of cringe or shirk. He is now a stadium juggernaut, his live shows are universally regarded as bucket list events for everyone, and he has turned a lifetime of making pop music in to a career that keeps him almost as young as the women who swoon over him. Bruce is everything that is wonderful about America.
His records now listen like a live show. If you haven't seen him live, believe me, it is a sight to behold. The master of ceremonies, he is able to shoot hot adrenalin through you and then turn it to ice cold panic on a whim, and then somehow transform that in to warm apple pie as he tucks you up and tells you a good old story with a 10 minute song to match. High Hopes is an extension of this idea. First things first, these are re-hashes. They are tracks that have been staples in the Springsteen live show for decades but have yet to be transferred to wax on an official basis by the man himself, although a number of covers are included (High Hopes, Just Like Fire Would, Dream Baby Dream). American Skin (41 Shots) was first played in 2000. Harry's Place was written in 2001. The Wall was written in 1998! So High Hopes is less of a call to arms, less of a night in to day moment and more of a personal statement based on a collective mindset. If Bruce can't do these songs justice in the studio, they ain't worth doing in the studio.
Alas, this is a limiting factor for the record. Listen to them as a stand-alone record and you will doubtless be inspired. Opener High Hopes is an old fashioned knee slapper that incorporates a saloon-style jazz section and his trademark growl. Harry's Place is a dirty, dirty groove. Tinged with 1980s Mark Knofler 'heavy fuel' funk it burbles below Morello's expertise and The E-Street Band's roots and all brass. Then Just Like Fire Would whacks you on the nose with that old fashioned Springsteen hidden deep album cut gem, the same way Local Hero off of Lucky Town or Jackson Cage from The River did. An infectious riff (it reminds me of Cold Chisel's My Baby, possibly because a Brisbane rock band originally penned it) with a belting chorus that has the 45 year old plus plus size mums in the crowd going absolute bananas. Frankie Fell In Love and Heaven's Wall follow a similar path, almost mining that mindset that made Wrecking Ball so wonderful. I say almost because the elephant stomping on your toes keeps reminding you these songs are re-imagined tracks mostly written ten years previously. The Ghost of Tom Joad came out in 1995!
Ok, Ok. We could get all uppity at this point and mention that no, it's not possible for a live show to truly be represented in the studio. Walking through Burwood on a Tuesday morning past drug dealers and homeless people will not be the same as sitting in Row A Seat 1 at a Springsteen concert, bombed out of my head on red soft drink and with my best mate next to me, belting out Born To Run until we pass out. So High Hopes is a redundant title, or a naive one. I was listening to Down In The Hole and I couldn't help but imagine Bruce on a dimly lit stage, with the crowd completely silent hanging on his every word, telling a story of loss, hopelessness and despair before bleeding
"Sun comes every morning but it ain't no friend
I get dressed and I go back again
The rain it keeps on falling on twisted bones and dirt
I'm buried to my heart here in this hurt"
The thing is though, High Hopes is so much more than a dumbed down version of a bells and whistles show. Down In The Hole showcases an almost soulful irish quality at the 3 minute mark, as morose strings partner a solemn drum beat and you picture him wandering next to a deserted train yard, broken. The Wall offers a gasp of solace with its slow march towards a muted yet optimistic horn fanfare, and Dream Baby Dream is coming up for air,
"We gotta keep the light burning
Come on, we gotta keep the light burning"
He pleads with us, dragging us through the shit and mire of life with a will power that can only be admired.
Problems? Well, American Skin (41 Shots) is the only misstep. It was written in 1999 after the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, then released as a live version and a limited release studio version in 2001. Some corners panned it, saying it was anti-cop and inflammatory. Released in 2014, it fits almost perfectly with the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent non guilty verdict of George Zimmerman.
"Is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
You've got to understand the rules"
I don't think this is anti-cop, I think it is a bit of a cop out. Yes, he says 'You can get killed just for living in your American Skin', but in 'if an officer stops you, promise me you'll always be polite and never run away, promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight' he almost defends the men with the badges, rationalising their actions for them by creating the doubt that if you run or have your hands stuck in your hoodie there is reasonable cause to assume you're a danger to them. Now I am not putting my feet down on either side of the fence, but I don't believe Bruce is either. A missed opportunity.
This is, clearly, a live album recorded in a studio. Morello's theatrics at the end of The Ghost of Tom Joad are awe-inspiring, but not as much as they would be in an arena with 70,000 people on their feet gasping as he performs feats man shouldn't be able to. That solemn trumpet in The Wall is the perfect memorial for Clarence Clemons. Can you imagine his nephew Jake on stage, drawing that fade out to a 5 minute solo/tribute to his uncle? It'd be epic. On High Hopes, Bruce is again the master of ceremonies. But your toughest competitor is yourself, and trying to compete with a Springsteen concert? That's a tough task.
Best Tracks: High Hopes, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Heaven's Wall