I got the new Springsteen album High Hopes this week. I currently own 16 of Springsteen’s proper studio albums and have owned two others that I lost somewhere along the way. I have also owned Tracks, Live in New York, and Live 75-85. You could say I’m a fan. I’m from the North East and my mom is from New Jersey. His music is part of my chemical makeup at this point.
Some critics claim that Springsteen is musically conservative. However, he has put out folk albums (Nebraska), songs based around synths (Streets of Philadelphia), sprawling epics (Jungleland), and straight ahead rock n roll (Ramrod). What gives this illusion of music conservatism is the fact that Springsteen’s music is always primarily song based. It also draws off of the vast and rich traditions of American popular music in the second half of the 20th Century. Springsteen’s catalogue has also been very purposeful. I think this sense of purpose again creates the illusion that things are controlled and experimentation is at a minimum. That’s not to say that all of his experimentations work, or that relatively speaking there aren’t those that are far more experimental. But he has always taken chances with sounds.
Topic wise I can’t think of a popular artist since John Lennon that has been more fearless in standing up for his political convictions. And although his language in recent years has occasionally gotten simplistic, perhaps for clarity, his themes have always been highly nuanced. On the song American Skin (41 Shots), of which there is the first studio recording of on this new album, Springsteen is smart enough to include the point of view of police officers. He is outraged by the outcome, but he understands the complexity of the situation. The only time he seems to paint in black and white is when he is after bigger game. When he deals with the war makers and the bankers on albums like Magic and Wrecking Ball there can be no mistake as to who is to blame for the average person’s suffering. Those people have the money and power to know better. They choose to create suffering for reasons of personal greed. But when he paints portraits of the average person caught between tremendous forces, even when they are in the wrong, he almost always appears to be at least partially sympathetic. On the song Paradise, on the album The Rising, where he is singing about a terrorist, there is a sense of sadness and sympathy. Not sympathy for the act committed, but for senselessness of a life headed towards a pointless tragedy.
Before the new album, which I am still evaluating, I feel his best album since reforming the E Street Band is Magic. It has the highest consistency of well written songs and thematically works as a whole the best for me. If there is a shortcoming to that album, and it is a small one, it is that album suffers slightly from modern digital compression which is a technical problem that is common on many modern albums. It lacks the warmth of the older work.
While it is still too early to tell what lasting feelings High Hopes will leave me with, it seems to be a grower that I actually like more the more that I hear it. As any critic cribbing from their press release will tell you, it is a collection of songs from different time periods. This really means nothing as often many albums feature songs from different time periods. The only difference here is that several of the songs have been featured in pervious forms. Even this is not unheard of. In other art forms the revisiting of themes and images from the past, and recasting them in new ways is common. Filmmaker David Lynch often has scenes with red curtains in them for instance. An older song that is rerecorded and recast by different surroundings is given new meaning.
The two songs that were released as singles before the album became available, the title track and Dream Baby Dream, left me wanting when I originally heard them out of context. However, as part of the album, again recast in a different context, they make sense to me and even sound better than I originally thought they did alone. Songs are great, but I still believe the album is the best musical form as it allows different sounds and themes to bounce off of each other creating greater meaning. Coming at the end of perhaps one of Springsteen’s darkest albums, Dream Baby Dream is truly beautiful. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. Originally some of the more modern production techniques on that song, the drum machine for instance, appeared superfluous. Again with it being changed by what comes before it, those touches no longer bother me.
The second song, Harry’s Place, is one of Springsteen’s strangest tracks ever. I could see how some people would not like this song as it is not easily enjoyable as a pop song is. But it’s cinematic strangeness appeals to me. It sounds like Springsteen recreating his cameo from Lou Reed’s Street Hassel over music that almost resembles Roxy Music.
The biggest change to Springsteen’s music is the addition of Tom Morello, formerly guitarist of Rage Against the Machine. He has as prominent a role on this album as anyone else in the E Street Band other than maybe Max Weinberg. His guitar playing is both primitive and eloquent. The guitar effects and noises that he is well known for appear, but so does epic soloing, the kind that you don’t hear on many records anymore. American Skin (41 Shots) is one of Springsteen’s best studio recordings of recent years, it doesn’t hurt that the song has always been exceptionally strong, and Morello’s solo is revelatory in its passion.
Morello’s presence and the material largely picked here give this record a dark and cinematic vibe. This is widescreen music. The songs continue Springsteen’s anger at what has been done to the working class in this country. Although there are a couple upbeat pop rockers thrown into the mix it is really the bleaker epics that form the cornerstone of this record. Although Springsteen leaves you with a song of hope in the end it is the prevailing darkness of the record that sticks with you. Even though the production is very polished in places this is a gritty record.
One of the most moving songs is the song The Wall. It is about a trip to the Vietnam Memorial and a memory of a former New Jersey musician that dies in that war. The lyrics below particularly hit me. There is an earlier line about Robert McNamara saying he is sorry and then talking about his friend:
Now the man that put you here
He feeds his family in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all
At the wall
Springsteen, again someone that so often works with nuance, lets these angry words float over a haunting ballad. It is a great way of using personal writing to convey a deeper truth. That the powerful often treat the average person as mere chess pieces, and are not held responsible when the consequences roll in.
I’m glad that Springsteen is still out there tackling big themes and making records that sound as big as dreams, even if this time they are dark ones. Although he has occasionally stumbled throughout his career, he has always remained valid and relevant and fearless in his convictions. He’s caught hell for it at times, but that just means he is usually doing something right.