There is no doubt that every new Bruce Springsteen release is a major event, not only to hard core fans, but to the music industry as a whole. This time around, however, our man has not made it easy for himself, revealing as part of the new album announcement, that the record is primarily made up of outtakes, covers and recordings of familiar live material, even re-recordings of already released studio material. That said, Springsteen clearly wants this record to be judged on its own merits and be recognized as a full-fledged E Street studio album.
Kicking off with the title track (previously released as part of the Blood Brothers VHS release in 1996), this new beefed up version contains a healthy dose of Tom Morello’s distinctive guitar (Morello guests on 8 of the album’s 12 tracks). With added horns and a strong vocal delivery from Bruce, this clearly is superior to the “Blood Brothers” version of this Tim Scott McConnell track. However, I cannot think of any less remarkable tune to kick off a Bruce Springsteen album ever. Usually, an opening song is a clear statement of things to come and certainly in most cases, classic Springsteen material, but this time around, “High Hopes” does not seem to fulfill any of these promises.
An outtake from “The Rising”, “Harry’s Place” takes us to the sort of criminal territory Springsteen has been describing on some of his best solo material. With a steady bass and drum beat and Bruce singing through the bullet mic, he delivers lines like “downtown hipsters drinkin’ up the drug line, down in the kitchen workin’ in the coal mine”, as the Big Man himself also enters the spotlight with some soulful sax playing.
“American Skin” finally arrives in a studio version which delivers what this modern day E Street classic deserves. The previously released live version and also the below par studio version (distributed in limited quantities to radio stations in 2001) both sounded like a missed opportunity to my ears. This version, however, is greatly improved, firstly by the melodic solos from Morello and Springsteen, and a strong vocal from Bruce (also adding the “41 Shots” through the bullet mic).
The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would” (from 1986) with a riff sounding very similar to John Mellencamp’s “Smalltown” stays true to both the original Saints version and also to the previously aired live version by Bruce debuted on the Australian leg of “The Wrecking Ball” tour earlier this year. A great performance by the E Street Band, and a track which should be a keeper on the upcoming 2014 tour.
A “The Rising” reject, “Down in the Hole” has a melody very similar to “I’m on Fire”, but while that “Born in the U.S.A.” track was minimalistic in instrumentation, this new track adds layers of percussion and keyboards, and also gives Patti Scialfa a chance to shine. The lyrics seem to have clear references to the post 9/11 NYC, but in this setting it takes on a broader meaning. Clearly one of the album’s highlights.
With its repetitive “Raise Your Hand” gospel refrain, “Heaven’s Wall” (also an outtake from the Brendan O’Brien recordings), seems to be going nowhere, despite a fairly catchy hook with acoustic guitars high up in the mix. Lyrically, Springsteen is visiting spiritual themes that have worked better in previous settings.
“Frankie Fell In Love” could well have been a track from “The River” (or from the 2nd “Tracks” CD for that matter), with ringing guitars and Bruce howling in his best country inspired voice reminiscing about old times (with Steven in Asbury Park presumably). While being a light weight rocker, this clearly is an inspired performance of a song I’d be surprised if it does not show up in a live setting very soon.
“This Is Your Sword” picks up where Bruce left us with “Wrecking Ball”, a song containing Celtic instrumentation while the lyrics wrestle to give this slow rocker a proper purpose with the “Sword” and “Shield” metaphors sounding used up long ago.
“Hunter of Invisible Game” (also an O’Brien produced track) contains a beautiful melody, strongly supported by a string section. While the lyrical theme of salvation is not new, it works, as it doesn’t seem forced (as in “This Is Your Sword&rdquo
. Another highlight.
It seems tempting to ask what the point is to re-record “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, a song which already received its definitive version as the title track of the 1995 album. The new version does its best to distance itself from the original muted studio version as Morello, Lofgren and Springsteen turns the volume up to 11 and delivers several blistering solos. Morello even gets a chance to sing a few verses alone, delivering a strong lead vocal. While it is nice to hear a new take of this already classic Springsteen song, I’d rather prefer it as a surprise in a live setting than to use it as an album filler it feels like in this setting. Clearly, Morello’s performance is the reason for its inclusion, but that does not seem reason good enough to me. Adding the fact that a similar live version with Morello was released on the “Magic Tour Highlights” EP in 2008 makes this a pointless inclusion in my view.
Bruce slows things down with “The Wall”. A beautiful song originally debuted live in 2003 during the benefit shows for the now defunct Doubletake magazine, Springsteen delivers a moving tale inspired my memories of Walter Cichon, a New Jersey rocker who was killed in Vietnam. The song contains beautiful organ courtesy of the late, great Danny Federici and a gorgeous trumpet solo by Curt Ramm. It serves as the emotional high point of the album.
Being familiar to most fans as a set closer during the “Devils & Dust” tour, the Martin Rev & Alan Vega penned “Dream Baby Dream” bookends an album which best can be described as a mixed bag. Some goodies, but also tracks which would seem better fit on “Tracks Vol. 2” than on a proper studio album.