#1 Review in America: High Hopes, Deferred

January 30, 2014 / by / 16 Comments

Each week we make Stephen listen to the #1 album in America. Sure, Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes was supplanted by the Frozen soundtrack this week, but hey, The Boss is The Boss.

Listening to Bruce Springsteen on Spotify is a fundamentally weird experience for me.

High Hopes, Bruce’s eighteenth studio album and eleventh #1 album in America, is the first album of his that I have ever listened to without owning a physical copy of the music. Every other Bruce album in my possession–and I have all 18 studio releases–has either been purchased by me, gifted to me, or lifted from my parents’ collection.1

The first CD I ever bought was The River, whose Side 1 Track 1 woke me up every morning for a solid year as my morning alarm in fifth grade. When I was 9 I made edits in the Born in the USA liner notes to make “Glory Days” more applicable to my life at the time.2 Hell, I even pre-purchased the Chris-Christie-sized-dump Working on a Dream just so I could have it around in times of need.

So not being able to pick up and hold a Bruce record is at its core foreign to me. I can’t page through the liner notes to see what songs Patti got stuck playing tambourine on, or flip to the acknowledgements and envision a world in which Bruce personally thanks me for all we’ve shared. And to make me even more overwrought, I can’t file High Hopes, this mediocre-to-decent collection of cover songs, out-takes, and re-imagined versions of older tracks, right in between Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 and Human Touch in my CD collection collecting dust back in my parents’ house.

The album is fine, a fun collection of songs that is enjoyable to listen to. If I had to give it a rating on a scale of 0 to 10 Clarence Clemons points, it’d probably garner a little above a five. Although to be fair, most of those points are for effort.

What makes Bruce so amazing is that he has never rested on his laurels, but rather is tirelessly working to release material that he finds interesting. We as fans have been pampered by an artist who doesn’t want to churn out the same kind of material over and over, but rather experiment, resulting in the often strange but nonetheless fascinating experience of hearing a classic rock demigod experiment with things like hip hop, banjos, and Tom Morello.

This Is Your Sword” and “Down in the Hole” have enough folk instruments, celtic pride, and blue collar liberalism to constitute a quorum at a Boston union hall. Morello absolutely slays it on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” even while Bruce does his best to blur the sonic lines between “Joad” with “chode.” And both covers “High Hopes” and “Just Like Fire Would,” as well as “Frankie Fell in Love,” are raucous bangers that every red-blooded man, woman, and child can raise a bottle of Bud Light to.

Both newfound facets and classic traits of Bruce’s career are present on High Hopes, so the album adds a new flavor to the Boss’ discography. But that new flavor is kind of like lemongrass — it brings diversity, but do we really need it? After all, what value do studio versions of “American Skin (41 Shots)” or “Dream Baby Dream” bring to the table when the live versions of both pack a more compelling punch? And some songs, like “Harry’s Place” or “Heaven’s Wall,” are better off left unreleased.

The amazing thing is that Bruce’s career has spanned just about every musical format Americans have purchased for the past half-decade. From vinyl and 8-tracks to cassettes and CDs, and now onto the uncharted territory of digital music services, Bruce has been making intriguing and fresh material for his listeners. So thanks, Bruce, for what you’ve done. Maybe next time just don’t put it all on an album with what looks like a picture of you “taking the Jersey turnpike,” if you know what I mean.