Bruce Springsteen has spent his career using extraordinary elements to spice up the seemingly mundane. Be it through the illumination of small-town New Jersey life through deceptively sparse poetry, or the energizing of simplistic song structures with larger-than-life guitar riffs, Springsteen has often found a way to milk material to its maximum potential. On his latest release, High Hopes, he tries applying the same treatment to a group of unreleased songs with the aid of longtime Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and some considerably ornate-sounding instrumentation—but the seasoned formula falls well short of yielding its past fruition.
One particularly egregious example is the new recording of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” on which he combines the aesthetics of his stripped-down original with those of the manic Rage Against the Machine cover. Though the symbolism of Morello and Springsteen recording the song together lends the track a nicely sentimental touch, it’s too musically incongruous to retain the power of either version. Morello’s flashy guitar playing stands out uncomfortably against Springsteen’s typically raspy vocals, and the guitar solo ending the track verges on self-parody.
There’s quite a bit of material on here that stayed previously unreleased for good reason. The repetition throughout album closer “Dream Baby Dream” feels tedious almost immediately. The extraneous Shakespeare references on “Frankie Fell in Love” suggest a nervous high schooler struggling to use his book smarts to impress at a party. Though High Hopes has moments that work, such as when Springsteen sings accompanied only by the percussion and Morello’s heavily processed chords, they are too few and far between to make the album an enjoyable listen. Springsteen will need to try harder if he has ‘high hopes’ for recording relevant music again.