As Chris Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal spread earlier this month, there was a string of jokes on Twitter that alluded to the New Jersey governor’s adoration for his state’s cultural hero: “Tunnel of Love (Gets Shut Down Next),” “working on the highway, laying down the traffic cones” and so on. But the gags using the hashtag #ChristieSpringsteenLyrics were virtually all references to songs Bruce Springsteen recorded decades ago. You’d never have guessed from looking at them that the (original) Boss was about to release a new album.
There’s a certain kind of record that rock stars make when their creative wells run dry. It often involves going back to material abandoned earlier or rerecording songs released years before; it can be padded out with covers when songwriting fails. (Think of Bob Dylan’s Down in the Groove, Prince’s Crystal Ball or David Bowie’s Tonight.) High Hopes, Springsteen’s 18th studio album, is unmistakably this kind of project–bombastic, weary and just close enough to the form of his great work to mask its hollowness.
Assembled while Springsteen and the E Street Band were in the middle of a world tour, High Hopes is awkwardly pasted together from songs and incomplete recordings that have been rattling around their repertoire for years–and maybe even decades. Three of its 12 songs are covers, while three are new versions of old songs. (The title track, written by Tim Scott McConnell, is both.) The band’s keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011, put in appearances from the archives; they’re both on “Harry’s Place,” which was rightly cut from Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising.
The chief distinguishing feature of High Hopes is the presence of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who filled in on the Australian leg of the tour, when many of these tracks were completed. “Tom and his guitar became my muse,” Springsteen burbles in his liner notes. But more often than not, Morello’s playing is intrusive and weirdly inappropriate. The worst offender is Springsteen’s umpteenth recorded version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” culminating in a showboating solo in which Morello reprises his Rage-era trick of making his guitar sound like a DJ scratching a record.
Springsteen is an album guy, not a singles guy, as his recent chart history attests. The premise of High Hopes seems to have been to assemble a sort of sequel to 1998’s Tracks, a great-songs-that-just-didn’t-fit on-other-albums collection. In the period before 2012’s Wrecking Ball, he suggested that he’d been trying to put together a gospel album, and a few of these songs seem like thematic relatives of that record’s “Rocky Ground.”
On the evidence of this album, the best of his past 15 years of songwriting made it onto other records. Even so, there are a few splendid tunes scattered among the filler: “Hunter of Invisible Game,” a sly pastiche of ’70s-era Dylan, would have made a first-rate B side, and “This Is Your Sword” is a graceful, if slight, gospel tune that’s nearly buried beneath corny Irish-folk instrumentation.
One of Springsteen’s strengths is his deep understanding of the rock canon. His early work, though, has become such a huge part of that canon that he often seems to recapitulate past glories. High Hopes may be a necessary piece of throat clearing before he can move on. Yet it sounds more like he’s stuck in Jersey traffic, waiting to cross a bridge.
This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.
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