Bruce Springsteen was once a stringent gatekeeper, his archives brimming with unheard recordings of fan favorites that never quite fit on his official albums. But old age has loosened Bruce up: High Hopes, his seventh studio full-length in just over a decade, retools material omitted from those previous six, tacking on a few covers and a pair of noteworthy revisions.
Those two reimagined Springsteen oldies form the album’s emotional core. Springsteen began dedicating “American Skin (41 Shots)” to Trayvon Martin in concert last summer. On 2001′s Live in New York City, this response to the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo was a slow, seething burn; now anger is overtaken by exasperation, a weariness at the song’s continued relevance. In contrast, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” once a hushed plaint for late capitalism’s dispossessed, explodes with co-lead vocals and a guitar maelstrom from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
The title track improves on the newly reconvened E Street Band’s first crack at the all-but-forgotten Havalinas tune in the late ’90s. Springsteen also puts his stamp on two punk tunes: The Saints’ “Just Like Fire Would” swings like sprightly early-’70s Elvis, and Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” drifts like a uneasy lullaby.
And the leftovers, several of which feature late E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, aren’t table scraps. “Harry’s Place” is Bruce at his sleaziest, “Hunter of Invisible Game” is a poetic orchestral reverie, and “The Wall” is a clear-eyed tribute to a buddy killed in Vietnam. Maybe none are masterpieces, but the charm of High Hopes is that it’s an almost deliberately workmanlike effort — as though Springsteen, no longer shouldering the burden of delivering a classic each time out, has been freed up to do a job, and do it well.