For just about two decades, Bruce Springsteen has been winding together two main threads in his work: leftist political commentary, and explorations of (mostly Christian) faith and metaphysics. Neither of these preoccupations would have been predictable from his first 20 years of records, but, interlacing them with themes, characters and settings from his 1970s-80s glory days, and with a few novel musical flourishes, Springsteen has tied together a coherent and largely successful body of work for his middle age, his own liberation theology.
Now, at age 64, he has released an album that feels like it might just be the ribbon to finish off that particular package. High Hopes, consisting mainly of cover songs and previously unused ‘old’ material, is by no means a highlights collection from the last 19 years, a setting out of the Gospel According to Bruce. It’s more like the apocrypha, the bits left out previously because they wandered away from the canonical message of a particular moment. But together on this new record, these apparent detours and meanderings demonstrate the fundamental unity of his approach and concerns over this period, and demonstrate too the general excellence with which he has turned them into songs.
It’s been easy enough to miss both the unity and complexity of this work, as albums come and go and each is evidently ‘about’ something fairly current: The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) was about poverty, migration and the Mexican border in the glossy Nineties; The Rising (2002) was about 9/11; Devils & Dust (2005) and especially Magic (2007) were about Iraq and Bush; Wrecking Ball (2012) was about disillusionment and revolt in Obama’s America; and, well, Working on a Dream (2009) was about getting a record out to coincide with Springsteen’s appearances at Barack’s inauguration and the Super Bowl.
Given that Working on a Dream established a cynical precedent, some fans have taken High Hopes to be similarly disposable, Springsteen’s equivalent to the immortally titled Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album. Without considering it the equal of most of the other albums named above, I’d give it more credit than that. It’s true that his threshold for releasing a song has never been apparently lower than the one he sets here when, explaining the presence of a cover of the punny old Saints song ‘Just Like Fire Would’, Springsteen points out in the liner notes that the Saints were “one of my favorite early Australian punk bands”. (Go on, name three great early Australian punk bands.) But like the other covers, Springsteen makes the song count, and fit well with his own writing.
The presence of non-Bruce-written songs is particularly striking because two of them bracket the album, ‘High Hopes’ (by Tim Scott McConnell of the Havalinas) to open, and ‘Dream Baby Dream’ (originally by Suicide) to finish. Sure, it’s Brucian hopes and dreams and stuff, but given the importance Springsteen has generally afforded to an album’s top and bottom slots, it’s a big change. Still, these songs will never get more definitive versions than the ones put down here. The ironically titled ‘High Hopes’ would have fit right in with the bitter politics of Wrecking Ball, insofar as its narrator has no faith at all in the fulfilment of even his lowest hopes: “I wanna buy some time and maybe live my life.” Of course he also hopes for love, peace, help, strength, sleep – but he muses bitterly to himself, “Don’t you know these days you pay for everything.”
The song cooks, with gas supplied by Tom Morello’s guitar. Morello, the lefty behind Rage Against the Machine, is also armed and dangerous to assist two of the album’s most directly political songs, both of them Springsteen’s own oldies. On ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, Morello’s intervention pushes the songs to the verge of bombastic excess, and maybe beyond. “Bombastic excess” might seem like a strange criticism to be raising at this stage of Springsteen’s career, four decades after he made his name by injecting unadulterated grandiosity into the bloodstream of the popular song: “there’s an opera out on the turnpike,” as he sang himself in ‘Jungleland’. But whereas making cars and girls sound grandiose is an honorable pop inversion, doing the same to politics can end up sounding like demagogic hubris. Crashingly potent concert performances of ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’, inspired by NYPD officers’ 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, had long since convinced me it was just-about the great epic of American race relations that Springsteen evidently thinks it is. Now that it’s got roughly the same treatment in studio for High Hopes, I’m suddenly not so sure: can a chorus that imagines the point-of-view of the killer cops, crying awkwardly “Is it a gun?/Is it a knife?/Is it a wallet?/This is your life”, really carry all the weight of blood and history he and Morello musically dump on it? Other, better lyrics do help – “you can get killed just for living in your American skin”, and the repeated evocation of those incredible 41 police gunshots – but something has gone awry if this version has turned me into a sceptic.
Morello is even more conspicuous on a song he has covered himself, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’. This time, for me, the lyrics – which mix images of contemporary homeless people with visions of Tom and Preacher Casey from The Grapes of Wrath, and which are sung here by Morello and Springsteen together – can easily carry the bombast. This rocking track doesn’t supplant the original, more modest version of the song, but it emphasises that it is much more than a lament: Morello’s voice and fingers help ensure that we hear, unmistakably, a deadly rebel yell. Tom Joad’s ghost is ready, like the ghost-martyrs in the stunning ‘We Are Alive’ on Wrecking Ball, to join us on the frontline of revolution. If Amadou Diallo were even half as vivid in ‘American Skin’, it would be a better and more powerful song.
The most vivid and political character on this album, though, is another dead man: Billy, the soldier whose name shines out from the black stone of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in ‘The Wall’. Based on Walter Cichon, who led a Jersey band, the Motifs, when Springsteen was a teenager, Billy’s life (“the best thing this shit town ever had”) and his blood “spilled in the Central Highlands mud” are celebrated with a chilling, perfect bitterness toward the men who sent him to war.
I remember you in your Marine uniform laughing,
laughing at your shipping-out party
I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry
As this simple love-and-hate song pictures McNamara’s ilk in limousines and “rich dining halls” (such a Gilded Age term!), one realises that nothing in Springsteen’s catalogue captures class, war and class-war better than ‘The Wall’.
Certainly nothing else on High Hopes returns to that territory. None of these political songs, for all their power, is as directly insurrectionary as, say, ‘Death to My Hometown’; all of them have a strong spiritual dimension, and it’s the metaphysics that take over for most of the rest of the album. Only the funny, poppy ‘Frankie Fell in Love’ limits itself to mainly carnal concerns, and even then choir boys are involved and Einstein and Shakespeare get to have a Dylan-y debate about the nature of love. (It’s far from the only Dylan moment on High Hopes.) ‘Harry’s Place’, largely a description of a kickass mobster – and for someone with my first name an obvious theme-song – ends up evoking personal weakness and spiritual emptiness. The fires in ‘Just Like Fire Would’ and the Rising-esque ‘Down in the Hole’ (which also sounds like ‘I’m on Fire’) have an eternal smell about them. ‘Heaven’s Wall’ and ‘This is Your Sword’ are both gospel songs from the deliverance prayerbook. The first, drawn obviously from African-American sources, works better than the second, drawn awkwardly from Irish sources; in both cases the theology tends to drown out the liberation.
That ends up reflecting the balance of the album. Wrecking Ball contained just as much death as High Hopes, but less complexity, less doubt, less thinking and agony. That sense of the personal spiritual exploration being more important here than the collective revolutionary victory evoked on Wrecking Ball is captured in what is probably the album’s most intriguing and lovely ‘new’ song, ‘Hunter of Invisible Game’, which sounds like it missed the cut for Magic. It’s apocalyptic, intimate, lonely, allegorical, physical, personal. Its narrator says: “I sing my song and I sharpen my blade.” But the blade is sharpened not to be used on George Bush, Robert McNamara, or “a cop kicking a guy”. The thing that needs to be killed is, so far, “invisible”, and maybe it will stay that way, in the singer’s soul. The singer concludes:
Now pray for yourself and that you may not fall
When the hour of deliverance comes on us all
When a hope and a faith and courage and trust
Can rise or vanish like dust in the dust
Now there’s a kingdom of love waiting to be reclaimed
I am the hunter of the invisible game
Is this the Revolution or the Rapture? For a man happy to play on the dual meaning of ‘The Rising’, that may be a distinction without a difference. For those of us who might like to think we know better, perhaps we have something to learn from a great popular artist who has tried to make himself into an unlikely prophet, and an even unlikelier revolutionary.