Springsteen smothers high hopes

RECORDINGS: Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes' ★★ If there's a thread tying these disparate tunes together, it's the singer's desire to update his sound.

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Bruce Springsteen's albums, especially lately, have been dominated by grand themes and over-arching concepts. "High Hopes" (Columbia), his 18th studio album in a career that stretches back 40 years, is determinedly not one of them.

It's being billed by Springsteen as a retrospective of his "best unreleased material" from the past decade, which is usually code for "leftovers." But nothing is ever quite that tossed off in Bruce World. Though "High Hopes" is that rare Springsteen project that appears only two years after his previous album, the politically charged "Wrecking Ball," the music is a product of long, careful deliberation, often passing through numerous incarnations until the singer decided it was release-worthy. If there's a thread tying these disparate tunes together, it's the singer's desire to update his sound, to take these strays and infuse them with fresh production ideas. But it only works when Springsteen steps back and lets the songs breathe.

Longtime producer Brendan O'Brien contributes to "High Hopes," but the heaviest lifting is done by coproducer Ron Aniello and guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Aniello came aboard for "Wrecking Ball" after working with Springsteen's wife on one of her solo albums, as well as a string of unimaginative pop-rock bands, including Lifehouse, Jars of Clay and Barenaked Ladies. Aniello blends traditional instruments with electronic rhythms and effects, but isn't much for understatement. Morello also plays a major role, his guitar style – percussive, textural – adding colors not usually heard on Springsteen's more tradition-bound releases.

The title song was suggested by Morello, a cover of a relatively obscure '90s track by the Los Angeles group the Havalinas. It signals the more adventurous approach with its typewriter rhythms and sonar-blip accents. Horns, keys and voices add to the momentum, as Springsteen sets the album's bleak tone: "Don't you know these days you pay for everything."

The album's snappiest melody is another cover, a faithful reprise of "Just Like Fire Would," by the underrated Australian band the Saints. In the mold of Springsteen covers of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped" and Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl," it's a well-intentioned gesture that points listeners back to the overlooked original.

Many of Springsteen's originals are beneath that standard. "Harry's Place," a sinister but static descent into a "Goodfellas"-like street scene, overdoes the wah-wah guitar. The wan "Down in the Hole" sinks in a swirl of factory clang and banjo twang. "Heaven's Wall" aspires to gospel transcendence with its "raise a hand" chant and heavy organ, but it never quite lifts off. For those enamored of Springsteen imitating a Celtic troubadour, "This is Your Sword" provides yet another reason to break out your Irish dancing shoes. "Frankie Fell in Love" is a charming rocker, a Faces-style mix of stringed instruments and walloping drums that evokes the early, more impish Springsteen: "World peace is gonna break out, from here on in we're eating take out."

These songs hardly feel essential to Springsteen's larger body of work, but they're not the main attraction. Three longer tracks are designed to carry more weight: re-recordings of "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream," which closed many of his 2005 solo concerts.

"American Skin" first surfaced on album on the 2002 release "Live in New York City." Written to memorialize the shooting of Amadou Diallo by New York City police in 1999 and now just as relevant in the wake of the Trayvon Martin slaying in Florida in 2012, the song took shape as a slow-build epic with the voices of the E Street Band individually intoning the accusatory phrase "41 shots." The "Live" version was gripping, but Springsteen actually improved upon it in subsequent shows, stripping the song back, delivering a brief but corrosive guitar solo and then fading to black with Clarence Clemons' muted saxophone. The "High Hopes" version is more operatic, with its sumptuous backing vocals and anthemic finish, an unnecessary punctuation on a song that doesn't need to be over-sold. The redone and over-done "American Skin" falters when measured against a half-dozen superior versions that can be found on-line.

Similarly, "Dream Baby Dream" falls short of the standard set in Springsteen's concert performances. His solo versions at the pump organ were as haunting as a scene out of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," a crooner pleading over a relentless drone that threatens to swallow him. The "High Hopes" interpretation starts off in the same queasy place, but soon drifts into pleasant easy listening.

"The Ghost of Tom Joad," originally a muted acoustic lament from the mid-'90s, is recast as an electric stomp, with Morello contributing vocals and lots of guitar. But Morello's solo, so disruptive and disorienting in the live setting, feels excessive in this studio version. Again, Springsteen can't seem to help himself; in chasing a "definitive" version of one of his best songs from the last two decades, he errs on the side of overkill.

Little wonder the two finest moments on this otherwise ho-hum Springsteen album are by a considerable margin its most understated. "Hunter of Invisible Game" muses on end times and deliverance, however momentary ("I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion"), as if floating in from a dream. And "The Wall" is a tender, broken eulogy for an old friend who died in Vietnam. All that's left is his name etched in black stone, and Springsteen was astute enough to just let it be.

greg@gregkot.com

'High Hopes'

Bruce Springsteen

2 stars (out of 4)

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