Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes (Columbia) * * * 1/2
Whether it was 9-11, his own sense of mortality or a combination of the two, Bruce Springsteen has been on a particularly rewarding and prolific journey since the release of his 2002 album, The Rising.
That rousing set, Springsteen’s response to the terrorist attacks on our homeland, restored his muse after a decade’s worth of floundering in the 1990s. He has released a new project with regularity ever since — uncommon for artists of his vintage. In this regard, he’s rock’s answer to Willie Nelson except his quality control is keener (don’t expect Springsteen, 64, to record a duets album of subpar versions of his oldies anytime soon). Springsteen’s artistic growth achieved a new peak on 2012’s Wrecking Ball.
For its follow-up, in stores Tuesday, The Boss taps producer Ron Aniello again for an album that could be called Greatest Misses. On his 18th studio album, High Hopes, which takes its title from a Havalinas anthem Springsteen previously recorded in the mid-’90s, The Boss curates outtakes that didn’t fit on The Rising and subsequent albums, Magic and Working on a Dream. He also throws in a few cover songs and reworks several tunes he has been performing live with the E Street Band since 1999. The highlight is a dramatic retelling of the title song from his desolate 1995 folk album, The Ghost of Tom Joad.
On this new electric version, guest guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine sings a verse and adds machine gun-like soloing to the song’s intense closing jam. The result is a considerably more commanding, furious updating that makes its well-traveled theme in the Springsteen canon — pleas for the downtrodden and overlooked in society — much more relevant in a post-recession America.
Morello’s all over the 12-track High Hopes, joining members of the E Street Band (including a couple cuts that feature the work of two late members, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici) and musicians Aniello gathered from the Wrecking Ball sessions. Some may regard Morello’s showy soloing as a detriment. They’d be wrong. Given the big, rich sound of this many musicians at work, an instrument needs to stand out to push the material to another level. Morello’s virtuosic work here is exciting.
Listen as Morello adds fury to a reworked American Skin (41 Shots), a song that traced the number of bullets used by four plainclothes New York policemen to bring down unarmed Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. Morello’s guitar pierces like the spray of those bullets as Springsteen now references Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman when he cries, “You can get killed just for living/In your American skin.”
For an album of odds and ends, High Hopes hangs together as a thematic whole the way Springsteen’s best albums of the last decade have as he once again revisits religion ( Heaven’s Wall), societal issues and typical E Street rock operas like Frankie Fell in Love.
Springsteen didn’t write The Saints’ infectious Just Like Fire Would but with its jubilant horns and E Street bash, you’ll swear he did. Another highlight — the haunting Down in the Hole, cut from The Rising — carries the steady tapping pulse of his I’m on Fire ballad from the 1984 Born in the USA juggernaut. But the lyrical focus looks outward, and the music, like the whole of High Hopes, has more grandeur.
Download: The Ghost of Tom Joad, Down in the Hole, Heaven’s Wall.
Rosanne Cash, The River & the Thread (Blue Note) * * * 1/2
On The River & the Thread, Rosanne Cash’s first collection of originals in almost eight years, the singer-songwriter takes cinematic stock of her Southern roots. Her travelogue songs are steeped in the thorny grounds of the swamplands and landscapes of Alabama, Mississippi and Memphis — the city of Cash’s birth — and kissed by the sawing strings that support the Tallahatchee Bridge of Ode to Billie Joe fame.
“There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past,” Cash sings on the sinewy folk-blues of A Feather’s Not a Bird, which opens this collection and is one of the finest songs of her oft-exemplary 35-year career. Her clear, expressive voice is a revelation as it navigates the thickets of electric guitars and backing harmonies and finds the truth in the sentiment. There is no one easy road here as Cash, daughter of Johnny, pays tribute to family friends and seeks to understand her own role as a musician, mother and wife.
“We’ll be who we are, not who we were,” she ultimately realizes on the shuffling blues number 50,000 Watts. As her aural roadmap touches down on Celtic, Appalachian, country and folk territory, you will get the sense that the insighful Cash, 58, has finally completed the album her bright and complicated life has led her toward.
The River & the Thread is in stores Tuesday.
Download: A Feather’s Not a Bird, When the Master Calls the Roll, Modern Blue.
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