Leave it to Bruce Springsteen to turn a mix of extras and covers into something powerful and appealing.
"High Hopes" (Columbia) is being billed as his 18th studio album, which is technically true, but it's really a compilation of covers and songs that haven't made it onto other albums for a variety of reasons. Nothing wrong with that, especially when it's done this well. However, for an artist of Springsteen's stature, whose albums are generally hailed as events that help shape pop culture and help put the broader culture in a new context, it's a bit lacking.
That's not to say it doesn't have some standout moments. On "Hunter of Invisible Game," Springsteen is at his most Dylanesque, building a lilting folk prayer based on a never-ending state of tension, while "American Skin (41 Shots)," written in 1999 after the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, retains its power and relevance, in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death.
The electrified version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," featuring Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello singing a couple of verses and churning out fiery solos, is stunning -- not just in its epic nature but in how it upends the usual Springsteen austerity.
However, that's not the only un-Springsteen-like surprise. It's odd how ordinary he sounds on the cover of The Saints' "Just Like Fire Would" or how clumsy and dated "Harry's Place" feels. And as soothing as his Suicide cover, "Dream Baby Dream," is in concert, here it sounds unusually bland.
"High Hopes" satisfies, but only if your expectations aren't set to usual Springsteen heights.
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THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE A surprisingly strong collection of odds and ends.