High hopes dashed in Boss' latest
Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, would seem to have hodgepodge written all over it.
None of the songs are brand new. Eight are originals that didn't make the cut onto various studio albums. Some are longtime staples of Springsteen's live performances.
And three are covers, including the title track, written by Tim Scott McConnell of roots-rock band the Havalinas, and originally recorded by the Boss for his 1996 Blood Brothers EP.
So High Hopes (Columbia, 3 stars) couldn't possibly cohere as a unified artistic statement, or count as a significant addition to the prodigious Springsteen songbook, could it?
Well, no and yes. It is true that his 18th studio album - which comes out January 14, but which was leaked on the web after it was briefly made available on Amazon's mobile site at the end of December - doesn't stick to a single stylistic or thematic tone. And it makes use of an array of implements in the New Jersey rocker's musical toolbox.
But that's not such a bad thing. Since reuniting in 1999 with the E Street Band, Springsteen has been in his most prolific recording period. And because he often omits tracks that don't fit the mood of a project - like the 9/11 grief of The Rising, or the blue-collar empathy of 2012's Wrecking Ball - choice tracks get left behind for reasons that can seem perverse in retrospect.
Which is not to say High Hopes is teeming with lost masterpieces. It's uneven in spots, and suffers at times from an overload of Tom Morello, the Rage Against the Machine guitarist who filled in for Steven Van Zandt on an Australian tour when the guitarist-actor was off playing a mobster in the Netflix show Lilyhammer last year.
Morello in many ways is to be credited with the album's existence: He suggested the rousing, brassy High Hopes, which serves up musical uplift while looking grim reality in the eye, be added to the set list in Australia.
While Down Under, where they will return in February in their (as yet) only scheduled dates of 2014, Springsteen and band recorded the title cut and a driving version of Just Like Fire Would by Australian band the Saints.
It's a track right in the E Street wheelhouse. In the liner notes, Springsteen writes that "Tom and his guitar became my muse, pushing the project to another level."
The Boss' new BFF plays on 10 tracks, and sings a duet on a thunderous remake of The Ghost of Tom Joad, the folkie title track to Springsteen's 1995 solo album.
Including an extended guitar freakout, it runs seven-plus minutes, and traded-off vocals diminish the impact of the song, inspired by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
Faring better as a sweeping epic is American Skin (41 Shots).
It was originally written in response to the 1999 death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot by New York City police officers. They were acquitted of second-degree murder charges.
The details - "Is it a gun, is it a knife, is it a wallet? / This is your life" - are specific yet timeless. The conclusion - "You can get killed just for living in your American skin" - could just as easily apply to Trayvon Martin, to whom Springsteen dedicated the tune last year, in a song that could fit onto the 12 Years a Slave sound track.
What about the less widely circulated tunes? Harry's Place, written for The Rising, is darkly atmospheric. A counterpoint to that album's Mary's Place, it's an anti- It's a Wonderful Life.
"If he didn't exist, it would all go on just the same," a grizzled, fatalistic Springsteen sings.
It's marred by the Boss' recent taste for distorting his voice. A better cut from The Rising sessions is Down in the Hole, which floats on a keyboard wash reminiscent of I'm on Fire.
The album picks up with tighter tunes that don't overreach.
Heaven's Wall is a shouter that puts to productive use the gospel power of the beefed-up E Street Band.
Frankie Fell in Love is a winning trifle that evokes Springsteen and Van Zandt's salad days in Asbury Park.
Throughout High Hopes, Springsteen moves from full-throated rockers to whispery folk.
Hunter finds Springsteen at his most Dylanesque, wandering an apocalyptic landscape in search of he knows not what.
The Wall is a more concrete folk song about Walter Cichon, a Jersey Shore rocker who died in Vietnam. The sentiment is powerful, but more effective on the page than to the ear.
The album comes to a close with Dream Baby Dream, a gorgeous cover of the 1970s protopunk duo Suicide that Springsteen played on the harmonium on the 2005 Devils & Dust tour.
It wraps up High Hopes nicely by succinctly restating the "keep hope alive" credo that has always animated his work.
''Come on, keep the fire burning," the Boss man sings in a stirring incantation.
"Come on baby, dream, baby dream."