The sound, the image and the sermons of Bruce Springsteen are so huge they're inescapable. At a glance, you might think it's been that way since his first big-selling record, 1975's titanic Born to Run. But as recently as the mid-'90s, Springsteen's seemed capable of splitting into unexpected paths. He had entered an indrawn period, more in line with the defeatist masterpiece Nebraska than his bombastic anthems.
While cartoonish E Street drummer Max Weinberg led Conan O'Brien's house band, Springsteen released records like 1995's muted Ghost of Tom Joad. The material hinged on archetypal Springsteen subjects—tragic odes to people struggling and, more often than not, falling through the cracks. It suffered from a muddy mix, but the songcraft of "Straight Time" and "Sinaloa Cowboys" was staggering. The next year, he contributed the bleak, unblinking title track to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. The song's pastoral backing instrumentation recalled Tom Joad—haunted organs and gentle percussion. A clear mix let Springsteen's pained eloquence shine: "Once I had a job/I had a girl," he sang from the perspective of a death row inmate. "Between our dreams and actions lies this world."
Since the millennium, the E Street Band has returned to the road. Springsteen has been prolific, too; since 2002, he's released seven of his 18 studio records. This year's High Hopes includes new full-band recordings of old songs, often rendered in the massive, high-gloss production indicative of Springsteen's last decade. For "American Skin (41 Shots)," written after the 1999 police shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, this huge sound works. A midtempo burn ignites a conflagration of guitars. "The Ghost of Tom Joad," like "American Skin," goes on for nearly eight minutes. While it starts off in a promisingly spare aesthetic, suggestive even of an old Western, the band comes in too loud, too soon. Tom Morello, E Street's new and rather unnecessary guitarist, adds two solos. Both feel heavy-handed, flashy reminders of how good stark Springsteen can be.
Springsteen sometimes gets lost between the goofy fun of big-arena bombast and the poetic heft of his gentler work, and that's the central source of his hit-and-miss discography. Not every song on High Hopes needed a new version, for instance. But throughout his career, beneath imperfect arrangements, there are often excellent songs. Even in his inconsistency, Springsteen remains remarkably consistent. —Corbie Hill