A Listener's Guide To Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes'
by Justin Farrar | January 15, 2014
Bruce Springsteen's latest album High Hopes certainly is a unique release. Though in many respects an Odds & Sods-type mishmash, the programming displays just enough cohesion to be deemed a full-blown new effort. With considerable input courtesy of Rage Against the Machine badass Tom Morello (who surely is behind the modern-rock touches gracing cuts such as "Harry's Place" and "Dream Baby Dream"), Springsteen and his trusted E Street Band dug back into the vaults and re-recorded a slew of half-finished demos, cover tunes, rare B-sides and live standards. Some, like the title track for instance, have a nearly two-decade history with the Boss. Then there's "American Skin (41 Shots)," which he has committed to tape on numerous occasions.
Because of the tangled history, we here at Rhapsody thought it would be cool to supply our Springsteen fanatics with a listener's guide to High Hopes. What follows is a track-by-track breakdown, as well as a playlist, that will supply readers with a better understanding of the album's background.
The title track (and lead single) was written by one Tim Scott McConnell (a.k.a. Ledfoot). McConnell, who also served time in the outfit The Havalinas, specializes in what he calls "Gothic blues." (The artist claims to have invented the genre in the mid '00s, but with all due respect, I'm of the opinion that both Nick Cave and Mark Lanegan have been exploring "Gothic blues" since the '90s.) Springsteen's initial stab at "High Hopes," overwhelmingly acoustic, appeared on the now out-of-print Blood Brothers CDEP released in the fall of 1996. The new version, in contrast, is significantly more electric and R&B-infused.
Written in 2001 and intended for The Rising (arguably Springsteen's greatest album post-2000), "Harry's Place" definitely shows Morello's influence. The song is laced with his punk-squeal guitarwork. The Boss also employs a slow-burn disco groove while referring to "hipsters" in the opening verse. Dude knows what's up!
"American Skin (41 Shots)"
One of two seven-minute epics to grace High Hopes, "American Skin (41 Shots)" was written in 2000 in response to the controversial killing of Amadou Diallo, a Guinea-born immigrant whom the New York City Police Department gunned down in February of 1999. Springsteen's first recorded version appeared on a promotional-only CD released in 2001. Another rendition appeared on Live in New York City, the E Street Band's ballyhooed reunion set released in 2001. During the Wrecking Ball tour of 2012, the Boss regularly dedicated the tune to the late Trayvon Martin.
"Just Like Fire Would"
We apparently have Morello to thank for talking Springsteen into recording this wonderful nugget from Australian punk pioneers The Saints. At first blush, the idea of the Boss covering an Aussie punk tune might feel like an odd fit. However, both he and The Saints have long shared a love for hard-driving, horn-laced rock and roll.
"Down in the Hole"
I dug up conflicting information on "Down in the Hole." Several sources claim it to be an outtake from The Rising; others have it being written a few years afterwards. I'm thinking the former is probably the correct date. Either way, it's a moody folk-rock number, one that not only echoes the great "I'm On Fire," but the atmospheric Ghost of Tom Joad album from 1995 as well.
Written somewhere in the 2002 to '08 zone, "Heaven's Wall" is full-tilt gospel rock starring Springsteen as working-class preacher. Though it's significantly more ecstatic, the piece does share quite a bit in common with the choir-supported "Rocky Ground" from Wrecking Ball.
"Frankie Fell in Love"
This is one of most classic-sounding Boss tunes found on High Hopes. It sports all the key ingredients: densely layered guitar strum, hyper-romantic imagery, Max Weinberg's pounding tom-toms and splashing cymbals and soaring choruses. Springsteen could have claimed "Frankie Fell in Love" was an outtake from The River and no one would have second guessed him.
"This is Your Sword"
To describe "This Is Your Sword" as Celtic folk-rock is no exaggeration. He previously tried out such a sound on "Swallowed Up (In The Belly of The Whale)" from Wrecking Ball. The tune fits right in with the 21st-century folk-rock revival, as spearheaded by Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Lumineers. Yessir, the Boss knows how to stay commercially relevant.
"Hunter of Invisible Game"
Yet another composition written in the early to mid '00s. The string arrangement is quite lovely, recalling vintage Motown. With lines like "Through the bone yard rattle and black smoke we rolled on/ Down into the valley where the beast has his throne," the song would have worked perfectly on the soundtrack to Out of the Furnace, actor Christian Bale's recent journey into New Jersey/Rust Belt hell.
"The Ghost of Tom Joad"
A duet with Morello, Springsteen's extended re-recording of the title track to his 1995 album is electrified and soaked in doom. (Rage Against the Machine even covered it on 1996's Renegades.) It's certainly one of the more radical sonic statements on High Hopes.
This cut dates back to the late '90s, apparently. Inspired by fellow heartland rocker and old Springsteen pal Joe Grushecky, who insisted that he write the song, the Boss tells the tragic tale of Walter Cichon, a legendary Asbury Park musician who cofounded the garage-rock act The Motifs before entering the Army during the Vietman War. Cichon was declared missing in action in 1968. His body has never been found.
"Dream Baby Dream"
My favorite song on High Hopes, "Dream Baby Dream" is a sublime lullaby written by the pioneering synth-punk duo of Martin Rev and Alan Vega (a.k.a. Suicide). Their version was released as a single in 1979. Springsteen does a wonderful job of transforming the song into a meditative slice of modern day electro-folk.