The new Bruce Springsteen album is called High Hopes. Another title? The Wild, the Not-So-Innocent & the iPod Shuffle.
The uneven LP, Springsteen's 18th studio effort, is a collection of odds and sods – cover tunes, unreleased rarities and songs from the road, all either newly recorded or spruced up with the help of The E-Street Band and Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who subbed for Stevie Van Zandt on the band's 2103 Australian tour and who often adds harsh guitar moments to the record.
"This is music I always felt needed to be released," Springsteen said in a press release. "I felt [the songs] all deserved a home and a hearing." High Hopes, set for a Jan. 14 release, is currently streaming on cbs.com as part of a promotional tie-with the network's weekly primetime drama The Good Wife. Here's how it shapes up, track by track.
High Hopes: When Frank Sinatra sang about an ant and the rubber-tree plant in 1959, there was still a can-do sunniness to America. Not any longer. This similarly titled song, penned by folkie Tim Scott McConnell and first recorded by Springsteen for his 1996 Blood Brothers DVD and EP, is musically lively – a brassy, Latinized chain-gang rhythm and a wah-wah guitar break – but lyrically despairing. "I wanna have a wife, I wanna have some kids," Springsteen whups, "I wanna look in their eyes and know they'll stand a chance." Real pie-in-the-sky stuff, sadly.
Harry's Place: Though it's an outtake from 2002's The Rising, this dull track about a street-level kingpin has an unlikable eighties pulse to it, complete with a yacht-rocking Clarence Clemons' saxophone solo. Should have been saved for the inevitable Don Johnson comeback album.
American Skin (41 Shots): "No secret my friend, you can get killed just for living in your American skin." A reaction to the 1999 gunning down of a Guinean immigrant by New York police officers, the aggressively affecting anthem could be applied to the more recent shooting of Trayvon Martin, an African-American. Production touches include an Edge-like guitar outro and the sort of studio-altered vocals featured on Springsteen's Wrecking Ball from 2012.
Just Like Fire Would: Fire would – firewood. Nice. Here Springsteen covers one his favourite Australian punk bands, The Saints. ("Check out I'm Stranded," the Boss suggests in the press release.) The track moves to a likable rock strum, prettied up with piccolo trumpet notes. The chorus vaguely recalls Elvis Presley's Burning Love, perhaps in keeping with the temperature-rising theme.
Down In The Hole: Not to be confused with the Rolling Stones song of the same name. The lovely, sparse track begins with a banjo trickle, a hint of I'm on Fire, a distant children's chorus and an effect on Springsteen's microphone that gives his vocals a lonesome, back-and-white air. Bizarrely, at the 1:42 mark, the vocal effect is removed, resulting in an awakening distraction that disrupts the song's spell. Another outtake from The Rising sessions.
Heaven's Wall: Who wants to hear a full-on gospel album from Springsteen? Hopefully it'll happen, but until then this rousing revival-tent number will do nicely. "Raise your hand, raise your hand, raise your hand," commands the pulpit-loving Promised Land singer, as if he needs to ask twice, let alone three times.
Frankie Fell in Love: Remember the guy who rhymed "runaway American dream" with "mansions of glory in suicide machines?" Well, tramps like us don't deserve "Good morning, good morning / The church mouse is snoring," which is how this otherwise agreeable hee-hawing roots-rocker begins. Good energy, with much fun and fiddles.
This is Your Sword: Bagpipes and all manner of beery cheer. An Old Country party starter would fit right in with 2006's We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
Hunter of Invisible Game: Perhaps a song about faith: Springsteen mentions "travellers in the wasteland" in the press notes. A scenic waltz charms with strings and a handsome, Dylan-ish verse: "Strength is vanity and time is illusion, I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion/ Your skin touches mine, what else to explain, I am the hunter of invisible game."
The Ghost of Tom Joad: The highway is alive tonight, as is this sprawling, amped-up version of Springsteen's acoustic ode to Woody Guthrie and a dustbowling John Steinbeck from 1995. Here it's a heavy duet with Morello, who has covered the song with Rage Against The Machine and previously joined Springsteen on stage to electrifying effect.
The Wall: The wall, as in a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington – "skin on black stone." Inspired by Sprinsgteen's Jersey Shore rock hero and war casualty Walter Cichon, the touching number has more than once found its way onto E-Street set lists. Given its emotion, it's a hard track to follow, but Springsteen pulls it off with the somnolent majesty of the epilogue Dream Baby Dream.
Dream Baby Dream: Written by the New York punk rockers Suicide, Springsteen has covered this spirit-lifter in concert before. Cue the Bic lighters and cell phones for a clacking, harmonium-warmed winner about open hearts and the simple power of a smile. High Hopes ends on a high, hopeful note.