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Bruce Springsteen's "High Hopes"

As people observe all the time, Bruce Springsteen is a lot like Chris Christie.

I just told a fib; Bruce and Chris aren’t likened to one another hardly at all.  But bear with me a moment.

Just a couple of years ago when I was a sophomore in high school, I found myself shoehorned in the back of an SUV, riding home with a bunch of kids after a tennis tournament.  Top 40 radio ticked off the miles for us when all of a sudden a song from the speakers sounded different from all the previous bubblegum pop.  Suddenly I gave an unnecessarily loud shout to everyone else in the vehicle, because I recognized that yelling was an optimum means of being quickly heard: “What song is this?  Who’s singing?”  No one offered an answer until the tennis coach, driving, responded, “Oh, that’s Bruce Springsteen.  It’s a new song from him.”  Thus began my decades long fandom with the Boss, although not five seconds into my brumance was my reverie broken by a coed in the car sneering, “He’s so old.”  I’ve heard that same sentiment registered a couple times since then, sister; Bruce isn’t getting any younger, but then again neither are we.

Next to the Spring of my senior year.  I finally had the chance to buy my first Springsteen album on the day it was to be released.  Never mind that it was 1995’s Greatest Hits, since any fan can tell you that appended to the end of that set were a clutch of newly recorded tracks with the sadly disbanded but miraculously reconvened E Street Band.  Terrified that the Sam Goody at the Esplanade Mall in suburban New Orleans would instantly sell out of new Bruce, but elated that the release day coincided with spring break, I paced outside the music store for a half an hour that Tuesday morning until the steel awning yawned open at 10:00am.  Slightly discombobulated by the marked lack of any stampede, I nevertheless tore to the front counter and breathlessly asked, “Do you have any copies left of Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits?”  My earnestness was countered with a dyspeptic squint as the clerk pawed in the direction of a nearby rack.  “I hate Bruce Springsteen,” he mumbled.  Hurt, I’d recollected myself by the time I returned to checkout, and with all the seriousness of “Badlands,” I intoned, “I’m going to buy this Bruce album, and you’re going to take my money, by which transaction you’ll know that your salary is being paid by a musician you despise.”  I allowed  myself a chortle before I concluded the homily: “It’s like you’re in a Springsteen song and you don’t even know it!”  Satisfied that I’d set this feckless clerk on a lifelong trajectory of moral improvement, I nevertheless chafed as a sauntered out of Sam Goody that morning.  “How could a worker in a record store hate Bruce?” I wondered silently, before narrowing my mind’s eye and ruing, “This would never happen in New Jersey.”  Everybody in New Jersey loves Bruce Springsteen.  

Enter Chris Christie, even if a particularly wide berth is required here.  Having lived Jersey for over a year now, I find that my out-of-state friends tend to assume that everybody (or at least a great majority) loves our good governor.  Once you pay the toll to get within state lines, however, you find a different reality.  Christie fandom often gives way to Christie fatigue, apparently.  So it is with Springsteen, and perhaps more so.  I’ll run across an occasional Bruce fan, but for each one of those, I meet 50 for whom Springsteen is at best nonthreatening but more likely deeply irritating.  Much like gridlock on a bridge, Bruce fatigue has gone systemic, and no new album of his can avoid the freighted largesse of his legend.

Tuesday, January 14 is the release date of Springsteen’s High Hopes, his 18th studio album, and I’ll be at Abbie Road in Audubon to pick it up that morning.  At least Bob, Abbie Road’s owner, will understand me.  But sadly, I don’t understand High Hopes.  It’s not a very good album.

On the positive side, it certainly sounds great.  If the 80’s and 90’s saw Springsteen cut albums of often stirring songwriting saddled to monochromatic sonic palettes–hence the not unmerited “all Bruce songs sound the same” complaint–beginning with 2002’s The Rising, the Boss has almost entirely enlisted outside producers to add variety and texture to his songs.  Even when the material has been subpar (or abortive, as in the unfortunate case of Working on a Dream), recent Bruce albums have consistently comported themselves with engaging music.  Ron Aniello, the primary producer of High Hopes, has taken the raw material of these songs and added flourishes (a banjo or fiddle here, a drum loop or bagpipe there) that may very well surprise anyone burdened by Bruce fatigue.  The title track is actually a little funky–check out the horn chart that kicks in after the first verse–“Heaven’s Wall” contains both a gospel stomp and a gospel chorus, and “Frankie Fell in Love” (the album’s best song, and not coincidentally the most exuberant and seemingly effortless) somehow channels both doo-wop and honky tonk in an under three minute package.  Of course there are echoes older material on High Hopes, and how can there not be, such as the train track rhythm and keyboard of “Down in the Hole” recalling Born in the USA’s “I’m On Fire,” but nothing on the new album plays as mere nostalgic pastiche.  Mix in some Irish-inflected folk rock (“This is Your Sword”), industrial metal courtesy of Tom Morello (rerecorded versions of older tunes “41 Shots” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”), and moody synth pop (“Harry’s Place,” also cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”), and you have Springsteen’s most stylistically diverse (and possibly for that reason sonically satisfying) offering since his second album, 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  Which is saying something.

But the lyrics suck.  It’s been remarked that success is the kiss of death to comedians’ remaining funny, because no one anymore will tell them to pare down their material in order to make it better.  I can picture, similarly, Springsteen demoing the songs on High Hopes to his musical cohorts and being met by a chorus of, “This stuff is boss, Boss!” before high fives are exchanged, cutoff vests are donned, and beefcake poses struck.  Au contraire: my bossdom for an editor!  Granted, it’s unwise to judge a song by its title, but would you say the chances are good that numbers called “Hunter of Invisible Game” or “This is Your Sword” would come across as lyrically heavy handed, overcooked, and embarrassing?  Well, does Courtney Cox look good with short hair?   QED.  

The great strength of the first two decades of Springsteen’s writing was his specificity of detail.  It’s not just any girl in “Jungleland” but one sitting on the hood of an old Dodge and drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain; the way off the straight and narrow in “Atlantic City” begins with “meeting this guy” and “doing a little favor for him”; whatever promise life might offer to the protagonist in “The River” ends with his receiving a union card and a wedding coat.  Instead on High Hopes, writerly details have been subsumed by an endless procession of “faith,” “strength,” “courage,” “righteousness,” “darkness,” “blood,” and “dust.”  Not coincidentally, the stronger songs on the new release are the most concrete, like the Vietnam lament that focuses upon “The Wall” at the Vietnam memorial or the old bottle of wine left on a hotel room table in “Just Like Fire Would.”  (Incidentally, if I could switch into my pastoral hat for a moment, one of the brilliant aspects of the Christian story is the way that the universal is bound up in the particular, and vice versa.  Faith, righteousness, darkness, blood, dust, and so on aren’t merely abstract constructions but come together in the person of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected king.  As a result, the Christian hope is both bracingly large and also practically embodied.)

Fans have puzzled over the provenance of High Hopes in that it includes a mixture of rerecordings of previously released material, newly polished outtakes, and–gasp!–three covers.  In my opinion,  the problem with the covers isn’t that they’re on the record but that they’re better than many of the Bruce originals.   I’ll take the young Bruce with the rhyming dictionary, which he admitted he used for his first album, over Bruce the bland generalist every time.  Meanwhile, I suffer through the “biblical imagery” of “Heaven’s Wall,” which consists of a chorus line of “raise your hand” repeated 384 times plus a random smattering of bible trivia sprinkled in.  I raise my hand to question what the song is at all about, besides the lifting of an upper appendage.  Even the details imbued in “Harry’s Place,” a song about a small time pusherman, are ostensibly half-baked under closer inspection: Bruce concludes the tune by singing portentously, “If he didn’t exist, it’d all go on just the same/Nobody knows his number, nobody knows his name.”  It’s not a coda on the level of “this is the way the word ends/not with a bang but with a whimper” but an effective closing couplet nonetheless.  The astute listener, however, will remind Bruce that we in fact do know the name of this drug dealer; he’s already been called “Harry” numerous times throughout the track, and helpfully his name is in the title of the damn song. 

Alas.  To balance my negative assessment of High Hopes, I do respect Bruce as an artist that this late into his career he still seeks to make music that is relevant, edgy, and popular.  Most acts his age have given up, haven’t they?  Oldies like Dylan, Neil Young, Clapton, and Van Morrison have retreated into an endless string of genre exercises, Sir Paul apes his own past, the Stones release cynical product only to keep touring, Billy Joel just tours.  Surely one can’t be as successful at rock and roll as Bruce without a commensurately large ego, but I can’t think of anyone that shares Bruce’s vintage who also presses so relentlessly to make music that’s important and new.  Aside from cult artists like Nick Lowe or Leonard Cohen who never really experienced mega-success, Paul Simon is the only other musician who comes to my mind that can match the late-career drive of Springsteen.  (From the other direction, U2 is close behind Bruce in tenure and in desire to make Big Statements, but the Boss is in a different, better category altogether.  It’s my job to know these things; I can explain over a beer, if you buy me one.)  Nevertheless, High Hopes fails transcend its cobbled-together origins and cohere into a single, purposeful record.  I’ll see you on release day for the next one.

Jim Angehr leads liberti church collingswood here in town.  He also blogs his own thang elsewhere.

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