The first thing you'll notice about High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album, is its title. It sounds inspirational enough — prophetic, even. But the Springsteen of today has largely bid adios to the leather-jacketed romantic who was born to run years ago.
The Boss has become more of an iron-fisted elder, an activist adjusting — and heavily reacting — to the world around him. And what he witnesses, especially in the darkest creases of 2007's underrated Magic and the mighty 2012 requiem Wrecking Ball, often isn't pretty.
So is High Hopes a wish for better fortunes, modest though they might be? Essentially, yes. But don't pass out the party hats just yet. The opening title track, penned by The Havalinas' Tim Scott McConnell and initially cut by Springsteen as far back as 1999, is a measure of just how small the victories are. "Give me love, give me peace," the Boss barks over an E Street Band brass attack that rocks like a voodoo rhumba. "Don't you know these days you pay for everything?"
Such purposely retooled frenzy is what High Hopes is all about. At heart, the album is a clearinghouse project.
Assembled during and between legs of Springsteen's Wrecking Ball tour, the record consists of cover tunes, unreleased works that date back more than a decade, and reimagined versions of songs that he has performed live for years. To that, he adds the augmented 18-member incarnation of the E Street Band that has been at his side onstage for much of the past two years, and a new alliance with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
What emerges is an album that bears much of the musical might that fortified Wrecking Ball. A few patches of light seep in, such as the youthful and fraternal Frankie Fell in Love and a wide-eyed cover of The Saints' Just Like Fire Would, which offer bright backwards glances to a glorious youth. But when High Hopes storms, no one is spared. Harry's Place, an evil twin to The Rising's Mary's Place, takes us via a relentless synth and wah-wah groove and Springsteen's vocal grumble to the coldest corners of the underworld, while American Skin (41 Shots) is given, 13 years after being introduced on the road, proper studio treatment that enforces its all-too-topical urgency.
A rockish reworking of The Ghost of Tom Joad, which sinks under the weight of Morello's surprisingly static soloing, is the only misfire. Otherwise, High Hopes uses fragments of The Boss' musical past as kindling for the fires that continue to burn boldly on E Street.