For many Bruce Springsteen fans, the 2000s were a wilderness.
It was Springsteen’s most prolific period — five albums in seven years, and that’s not counting a raft of compilations and live releases. It featured some of his least-memorable work, along with a seemingly unending march of the almost-great (the 9/11 elegy “The Rising,” parts of 2007’s “Magic”), niche releases (“We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”) and the inexplicably mediocre (“Working on a Dream”).
“High Hopes,” Springsteen’s 18th studio album, is billed as a collection of newly finished versions of cover songs, live favorites that had not been recorded, redone versions of released tracks and songs that simply didn’t fit anywhere else. Many of them were intended for, then left off, the spottiest ’00s releases. This was worrisome: How bad did a song have to be to have been rejected for “Working on a Dream,” when “Queen of the Supermarket” made it on?
But some of these tracks turn out to be better than anything on the albums that spurned them, and “High Hopes” hangs together more reliably, and sounds more jubilant (even when it’s sad), than any Springsteen album in years. It is a beautiful curiosity piece, a visit to Springsteen’s Island of Misfit Toys. But mostly it’s a relief, because it feels like the endpoint of a blighted era. “High Hopes” functions as a clearing of the musical decks and, it is hoped, a line of demarcation between ’00s Bruce and a future, tanned-rested-and-once-again-awesome Bruce.
There are plenty of reasons to think so. “High Hopes” gets everything right: tone (the ’00s albums were either too dark or uncomfortably light), sound (everything from vintage, late-’80s Boss to hook-dense stadium rock), production (’00s fixture Brendan O’Brien, whose antiseptic production cut off many a recent Springsteen album at the knees, is a lesser presence here).
It’s an album of ghosts, both literal and figurative. E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons (who died after a stroke in 2011) and organist Danny Federici (who died of melanoma in 2008) appear throughout, most memorably on the local gangster ode “Harry’s Place,” a “Rising” also-ran.
Almost every song seems to have an older, classic Springsteen song hanging over it like a specter: “Down in the Hole,” another likely refugee from “The Rising,” recalls “Born in the U.S.A.” slow-burners “I’m on Fire” and “My Hometown.” “Frankie Fell in Love” feels like a sequel to “No Surrender,” Springsteen’s legendary homage to his bromance with E Street guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt.
Van Zandt, who was moonlighting as an actor on the TV show “Lilyhammer” during the recent recording sessions, is an intermittent presence here, frequently replaced by Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist and a recent Springsteen compatriot. Morello anchors (and occasionally threatens to overpower) every track he plays on, including “American Skin (41 Shots),” a former live staple and one of the finest Springsteen songs of this or any era. Born out of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo in 1999 by members of the New York Police Department and resurrected on the set list after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, this studio version doesn’t differ substantially from the live one.
“High Hopes” is an odds-and-ends collection that mostly doesn’t seem like one. Even the tracks that feel vaguely out of place, such as the heavily biblical ballad “Hunter of Invisible Game” (“Now pray for yourself and that you may not fall/When the hour of deliverance comes on us all”) or “The Wall,” a lament for the fallen in Vietnam, are solid, and the covers don’t feel like covers.
The title track is a straight-ahead, hands-in-the-air rocker, written by Tim Scott McConnell of the Havalinas, that originally appeared on Springsteen’s forgotten ‘96 EP “Blood Brothers.” The closing ballad, “Dream Baby Dream,” continues Springsteen’s long love affair with the proto-punk band Suicide, and the upbeat “Just Like Fire Would” is a cover of a jangle-pop track by Australian ’80s rockers the Saints.
The strongest cover is Springsteen’s own reworking of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the only song here that had a memorable studio version to its credit. (It anchors Springsteen’s ‘95 classic of the same name.) Thanks in part to Morello, who also sings, it’s now a work of rafter-shaking righteousness that spiritually resembles Rage’s fury-filled cover as much as it does Springsteen’s solemn, stiff-backed original. And it has a guitar solo memorable enough to ensure that Little Steven never goes on vacation again.