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Bruce Springsteen
High Hopes Emily Mackay , January 10th, 2014 08:24

It's a tricky one to pull off well, the old 'collection of outtakes, covers and reworkings', but if the cynical among you (cynical in the presence of the Boss? The power of Bruce compels thee!) are thinking that this is a mere grab-bag of cash-grubbing offcuts, think again. Producer Ron Aniello, who also worked on 2012's Wrecking Ball, revealed in a recent interview that Springsteen typically agonises over the tracklist of an album for months, ruthlessly slicing off the producer's favourites at the 11th hour. Bruce cares about the finer points of his catalogue, y'see, and so, it seems, does everyone else these days.

His critical rehabilitation of recent years has fuelled interest in beyond-the-hits Bruce: what with his surprising and subtle Glastonbury headline slot of 2009, the following year's Darkness On The Edge Of Town making-of documentary The Promise, his much-acclaimed cover of Suicide's 'Dream Baby Dream' (played on the Devils & Dust tour in 2005 and released as part of a tribute to the New York duo in 2008 - Springsteen is a long-time fan, as Nebraska's 'State Trooper' reveals) and seemingly every plank and his dog attempting an indie John Lewising of the Springsteen song for people who can't stomach Springsteen, 'I'm On Fire', the time seems ripe for Boss rarities.

It's a shame, then, that despite Bruce's high standards, not many of these songs sound really rare. The title track starts things well, a cover of 90s gothic blues types The Havalinas, formerly only available on the 1996 Blood Brothers EP. Both that earlier version and this beefier, ballsier version, with added guitar from Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello (who suggested Springsteen revisit the song while standing in for Steven Van Zandt on the E-street Band's 2013 Australian tour), stay pretty close to the original. Presumably Bruce is just happy for more people to hear the song - its writer Tim Scott McConnell recently revealed that the Boss admired the track so much that he came backstage to praise it at a 1991 Havalinas show, taking a surprised Scott McConnell's guitar as he stepped offstage.

Keeping the momentum of that strong start is 'Harry's Place', a moody, Tom Waits-ish gangland tale originally intended for 'The Rising' which recalls the criminal-glamorising badassery of 1982's 'Murder Incorporated' (itself an unused track from the Born In The USA sessions), with Tom Morello's guitar twining smoothly with sax laid down by the late great Clarence Clemons: "you don't fuck with Harry's money/you don't fuck Harry's girls/These are the rules/This is the world".

And it's all strong stuff: other outtakes such as the fun, frisky, country-bawdy 'Frankie Fell In Love', the heavy gospel rocker 'Heaven's Wall' and the spectral, banjo-spooked melancholy of 'Down In The Hole', are the sort of tracks you imagine Aniello might have wept over as Bruce struck them off the list, but there's not much in the way of revelation or surprise. 'This Is Your Sword' has more of a Celtic hokey-folky tinge, banjo and bagpipes firing up rabble-rousing lyrics. 'Hunter Of Invisible Game' is a sweetly contented, softly spoken waltz, while 'The Wall', an understated but emotive ballad, pays tribute to Walter Cichon, a New Jersey rocker who with his band The Motifs was an inspiration to the young Bruce before he was killed in the Vietnam war, the lyrics describing Springsteen's visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC: "you and your rock & roll band were the best thing this shit town ever had… and apology and forgiveness got no place here at all."

More essential is 'American Skin (41 Shots)', previously released on 2001's Live In New York City, and originally inspired by the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo by New York police, rediscovered in recent setlists and rededicated to Trayvon Martin. Its soft-and-fluffy organs, echoing backing vocals and gently pleading tone might rankle some - your tolerance depending perhaps too on your feelings about rich stars protesting injustice - but the song has a subtle touch and a great and affecting chorus (which it would be mighty hard to misconstrue, 'Born In The USA'-style - "It ain't no secret/You can get killed just for living in your American skin") and it builds to a rancorous climax.

Just as furious but sadly less successful is a new version of 'The Ghost Of Tom Joad', transformed from its stark and doomy guise in the 1995 album of the same name, into a sulphurous and swaggering guitar-and-vocal back-and-forth between Springsteen and Morello. The song holds the extra weight admirably, Morello's Audioslavish guitar histrionics fit well, and they could even have got away with his heinously overdone delivery on the climactic "look in their eyes, ma, and you'll see me" line, if not for the last minute-and-a-half's descent into superfluous and incongruous wikkidy-wah-scratchy guitar wank. It's a real shame, what could have been the most arresting moment of the collection spoiled.

More ever-so-slightly fluffed is 'Dream Baby Dream', a more saccharine take than the solo live version released on the Suicide tribute disc, attempting the sort of working-up, as opposed to stripping-down, that say, Spiritualized could nail, but coming off a little overdone.

More happily, the other cover on the record, a bright, happy and bullish take on Australian punks The Saints' 'Just Like Fire Would' is irresistible, but also serves as a reminder of the album's genesis, recorded piecemeal during the E-Street band's 2013 Australian tour. Aniello described this album as "a much bigger experiment because it was so different," and said there was "a little more back and forth with it,"' in terms of Springsteen's normal method of track choice and sequencing. Perhaps its on-the-hoof, anomalous nature is the source of a sense that 'High Hopes', though good, doesn't feel either like a set of surprising others sides or quite as cohesive or great as the title of 'new Springsteen album' (as opposed to say 'iTunes bonus tracks', or 'B-side collection', which might have been more fitting categories) might demand. It gives no reason, though, to let those hopes dip until next time around.