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Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
Bruce Springsteen's 18th studio album, "High Hopes," which was released Tuesday, is more like an artist’s playlist than a true album, which — when done right — is built around a theme and represents a certain chapter or era of a musician's career.
The good news is, it's solid, even though it's unspectacular — at least when stacked up against "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," and all of the other finest chapters of Springsteen's epic four-decade career. But what isn't? It's a bit uneven, with a couple of songs that would be better left as outtakes.
"High Hopes" should be enough to pacify the bulldog-like Springsteen fan for the moment, though. With this disc, Bruce is tossing them a slightly better bone than he has with many of his spotty albums since his last epic achievement, "The Rising," which is now — believe it or not — nearly 12 years old.
"Wrecking Ball" was gritty and fun, but "Working on a Dream?" Pablum.
The problem is, "High Hopes" has no real crescendo, no real defining moment. But there's a smattering of good stuff.
The album is a hodgepodge of songs spanning nearly two decades — from flat-out rocker to ballad to gospel to reformulated punk to one with Celtic-like overtones — that Springsteen culled from archived material, with most of the legwork done out on the road while he and his fabled E Street Band were on tour.
The result is an unorthodox combination of outtakes, covers, and re-invented songs to go along with a couple of previously unpublished ones, a collection that Allison Stewart of the Washington Post aptly described in a favorable review as "a beautiful curiosity piece, a visit to Springsteen's Island of Misfit Toys."
There's nothing wrong with that. After all, what ends up on Springsteen's cutting-room floor makes other musicians drool.
In some ways, the album's a reflection of changes in listening habits that have evolved since Apple debuted its iPod in 2001. A lot of people don't embrace albums as the chapters of an artist's career or listen for the subtle nuances of musicology the way they did in the past. They want a grab-bag of songs. Springsteen might now simply recognize how the market has shifted. Or, he might be using this as a placeholder.
The two most noteworthy songs on "High Hopes" are the two most familiar ones: "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and "American Skin (41 Shots)." For "The Ghost of Tom Joad," Springsteen offers a strong, rockin' contrast to the original 1995 acoustic, introspective version. Former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who is on eight of the 12 tracks and appears on the disc more than Springsteen's longtime sidekick, Steve Van Zandt, pushes the E Street Band's stylistic envelope and makes an undeniable contribution.
The disc includes appearances by two of the band's most beloved-and-departed members, the late Clarence Clemons and the late Danny Federici.
The "High Hopes" title track, written by Tim Scott McConnell of the Havalinas, was recorded by Springsteen in 1995; the album ends with "Dream Baby Dream," a song written by the New York punk band Suicide that Springsteen has transformed into a warm and inspirational ballad he's used in some concert encores.
Along the way, there's a cover of "Just Like Fire Would," written by Chris Bailey of The Saints, one of Springsteen's favorite punk bands. It's OK, but is a little too pop. There's the gospel-infused "Heaven's Wall," which is not to be confused with another song on the disc, "The Wall," a 2003 tribute to veterans inspired by a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, both of which are good.
Back when R.E.M. called it quits in September of 2011, Fred Shuman, owner of Durdel's Music in West Toledo, observed how all musicians — especially music's upper echelon of superstars — face great challenges in terms of staying power.
Not every album's a classic, Shuman said. The greatest musicians are lucky to get one or two classics in careers that span decades.
That's why they're called classics.
"High Hopes" certainly is no classic. But it's not an embarrassment, either. It keeps the 64-year-old Springsteen in the mix as a relevant, mega-superstar as he and the E Street Band continue the 2014 leg of their global tour in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
There are lulls, moments of over-production and instruments such as bagpipes that test a rock fan's sensibility more than strings and horns.
It's not a Greatest Hits album, nor is it meant to be.
It's a hodgepodge of songs, a Springsteen playlist.
— TOM HENRY
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (Soundtrack)
Various Artists (Sony Music)
"August: Osage County" gets the soundtrack genre off to a good start in 2014. Its strength lies in a couple of warm, intelligently crafted and soulful new songs, especially an acoustic version of "Last Mile Home," written for the film by the Kings of Leon, and "Violet's Song" by JD and the Straight Shot.
There are a couple of archived hits in there for good measure, such as Eric Clapton's bread-and-butter, "Lay Down Sally" from his Slow Hand album, although Billy Squier's "The Stroke" has an awkward feel to it in this mix. The disc is largely intriguing mood music with a deep, pensive, and slightly dark but ultimately touching aura.
Gustavo Santaolalla, a two-time Oscar winner in the Best Original Score category for his Babel and Brokeback Mountain compositions, is one of three composers who contributed.