The album comprises of 12 songs that come from different sources and eras, reworked and updated by the singer with the help of The E Street Band (including contributions by the late Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons) and guitarist Tom Morello. These include original songs and covers that Springsteen has previously performed live but never recorded in the studio before, and new versions of a couple of songs that have appeared in some of his earlier albums.
Put together, these tracks form an interesting set, but still seem uneven and struggle to cohere.
To its credit, High Hopes doesn’t seem like it has been thrown together carelessly or sloppily. You can hear the effort that has gone into these tracks; individually the songs are well made, and you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone of Springsteen’s calibre. But put together, the album isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. It certainly isn’t a bad set of songs; the individual tracks have some merit and you can see why Springsteen thought he should record them. And he certainly recorded them with his typical grit and enthusiasm. But the album certainly isn’t exceptionally memorable either, and it is never more than a set of unrelated singles.
The rousing gospel-flavoured ‘Heaven’s Wall’, the playful country-tinged ‘Frankie Fell in Love’, and the Celtic- inspired ‘This Is Your Sword’, for instance, are all good songs, but it never becomes apparent what they are sonically or thematically doing together on an album. Similarly, Springsteen’s heartfelt cover of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ is warm and affecting, and his rendition of The Saints’ terrific ‘Just Like Fire Would’ is one of the highlights of the album, even though the singer doesn’t really bring anything new to the song. Also, Tom Morello adds energy to the reworked ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, although some might find his contribution a little too jarring.
But for an artist that makes records as solid as Bruce Springsteen does and who has put together a stunningly impressive discography over four decades, High Hopes doesn’t quite fit the bill of a Springsteen studio album. You don’t have to know the record’s background to figure out that this is a compilation of odds and ends; the material is disparate enough to make this fact apparent on the very first listen. High Hopes will be most appreciated by Springsteen’s diehard fans, especially those who have seen him perform live and have been yearning to get their hands on a proper studio version of some of these songs – like ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’, the somewhat controversial tribute to Amadou Diallo who was gunned down by police, and ‘The Wall’, which was inspired by a visit to the Vietnam Memorial – that have previously appeared in his live sets. It will help us bide the time till he unveils his next studio album, but ultimately High Hopes won’t be remembered with the same fondness as most of his other studio albums.