Not a week old, there's already a moment in High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio-album, I can't stand. In the steady-moving, gospel-inflected "Heaven's Wall" when the song's reaching its peak, a clattering of jungle drums re-enters and elbows for room against Tom Morello's barbed guitar. If they had stayed as a teaser in the intro, the song would've been fine. But jimmied in the midst of a tune rife with ingredients, it spoils the entire recipe.
That's the way much of the Boss' latest release operates. It's not entirely surprising, considering Springsteen has been obsessed with the mythical "Wall of Sound" since Born to Run. Even the golden-eared Brian Wilson, a staunch proponent of the concept, was guilty of shoehorning one too many sounds into a track. Don't believe me? Listen to the honking bike-horn in "You Still Believe in Me", and then come back. That bike-horn transmutes to jungle percussion in the aforementioned "Heaven's Wall" or tinny-sounding trumpet in "The Wall". A softly-strummed elegy to Vietnam vets that recalls Sting's "Fields of Gold", it's inscrutable until it's time for the trumpet to play. The weight of moment crushes the trumpet from the first note. Springsteen's vocals conjure a person of great-strength, while the trumpet only signifies frailty.
Another disheartening moment on an otherwise brilliant song is Soozie Tyrell's violin flourishes in the revamped "The Ghost of Tom Joad". She's going for a harrowing winter-night in Eastern Europe vibe, which is entirely unnecessary considering the song is bone-chilling as constituted. Tom Morello's guitar is unnervingly restrained in the first verse. Springsteen's delicate croak is quiet enough you can almost hear the crackle of the fire the narrator is huddling over. Adding Tyrell's part is akin to dumping one more bucket of blood onto a splatter-film and pretending it's scarier.
One welcome addition is previously mentioned Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Pitchfork writer Stephen M. Deusner labelled Morello's playing "superfluous", which I couldn't disagree with more. Without Morello's fiery performance on "The Ghost of Tom Joad", the tune would be robbed of the righteous indignation Springsteen's attempting to convey. His careening effort on the title-track gives Springsteen the strength he begs for. Subtracting Morello's wah-wah's from the boogieing "Harry's Place", you end up with a staid piece of 80s rock. Morello's turntable imitations seem alien on first listen, but after a few spins they fit into the E-Street world.
"American Skin (41 Shots)" provides the ultimate litmus test for Morello. The ode to Amadou Diallo has existed since 1999, in live and studio varieties, so Morello's struggle to give the song any new resonance is palpable. The skyward solo acts as his deliverance, clearing a major hurdle of expectation and giving listeners a much needed emotional release. As for Springsteen, he could've phoned it in and no one would blame him. Fortunately, Springsteen misses any tepidness by a wide-margin. When he questions "Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet?" you hear his agony. More than a decade later, incidents like these haven't waned they've promulgated. And despite the magnifying presence of 24-hour news media, we quickly forget these tragedies until another one rolls around. Springsteen knows this "rule" and can't keep from hanging his head.
His slumped head finally hits the ground on "Down in the Hole". Doleful organ and industrial chatter renders an autumn skyline "dark and bloody." Other voices dot a haunted landscape, but they sound so distant Springsteen is effectually alone. Arguably that's how he works best. Sealed away, with only the occasional visitor. Past glories succeeded because he already had the blueprints laid out in his head, all he needed was an expert crew to turn dreams into brick and mortar. Ultimately, a crowdsourced album like High Hopes demonstrates why Bruce Springsteen works better as a boss than a co-worker.
"Dream Baby Dream" (Suicide Cover)