Bruce previously wrote liner notes for Devils & Dust, which perhaps not coincidentally was also an album mainly of older unreleased material. As with the notes to that album, there are some poignant notes here: The Wall, a song that Bruce premiered in concert in 2003, was inspired by Walter Cichon, a member of a '60s Jersey Shore band called "Motifs." This is the best part of the liner notes, and arguably the best of the previously unreleased songs on the album.
Much of the album has been heard before. Springsteen recorded High Hopes, written by Tim Scott McConnell of Havalinas, in 1995 for the Blood Brothers sessions; he released it on a "bonus" EP that accompanied the VHS release of Blood Brothers in late 1996. In a discussion of that release on the old LuckyTown Digest, Dave Marsh quipped, "If 'Without You' [another track on that EP] is the biggest pile of piffle BS has ever foisted on the world (IF...), then what in the world does that make 'High Hopes'? His best ever knock-off of a Disney theme?" I don't think he meant it as a compliment.
This new version of High Hopes adds more drum parts and horns, and it almost sounds like a marching band backing Bruce. It also features a fiery Tom Morello solo, but to me all the extra instrumentation is so much lipstick. Nice lipstick. Pretty lipstick. It sounds good, at least.
This album also features the seventh different version of The Ghost of Tom Joad to be put in to official release, going back to it being the title track of his 1995 acoustic album. It's the third version with Morello. This is his first studio version of it with Morello, but otherwise it's more or less the same as was released on the Magic Tour Highlights EP in 2008, with Bruce and Tom trading the vocals again.
American Skin was a centerpiece track of the Live In New York City album, and his version of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream was released on vinyl and as an iTunes download in 2008, after having been a show closer for Bruce during the Devils and Dust tour in 2005. Both tracks come dressed up with more drum parts, or maybe the same drum part. The opening chant of "41 Shots" sounds like it's bubbling up from under a lagoon. But both new arrangements will work live; Bruce has already performed the new version of Dream Baby Dream at this year's Stand Up For Heroes show, and it was the highlight of his performance.
But as I try to piece together this release as an album, I am struggling to identify anything that makes sense to me as an "arc." Anything beyond, "hey, I'm 64, and I can still put out new music!" That's something, I suppose, but up next to the song suite of Wrecking Ball, it just doesn't feel like very much.
I will listen more, as I always do. I've found songs that I like. Down in the Hole reminds me of Magic, and contains some nice vocals from Patti (and some children -- Bruce's? is it that old?). I liked Hunter of Invisible Game, a rare Springsteen track in waltz time; if the lyrics are a half step below his best it still works well enough for me. The Wall, punctuated by Curt Ramm's trumpet solo, stands with any of his acoustic tracks over the past couple decades.
The sound is modern enough and the music moves, but I don't hear any tracks that will be on my 12-year old daughter's radio station any time soon. Sound effects that added to songs on Wrecking Ball, do more to distract here; in my opinion the bullet mic should have been retired a few years ago, and the stereo effects of Heaven's Wall feel like they showed up from another decade. Of course, the "Raise Your Hands" chant from that song will surely become the next audience participation event in concert. The power major chords of Frankie Fell in Love are so bold I can imagine it as the theme song to some TV show I must have missed. This is Your Sword sounds vaguely Celtic, so long as the lyrics are ignored. But this album also shows that the best judge of Bruce Springsteen's music is... Bruce Springsteen. As with prior albums of unreleased songs (Tracks, Devils & Dust), there's good reason why so many of the songs weren't on those prior releases.
Of course, Bruce doesn't appear to be attempting any grand statement with this release. Anyway, it's quite a bit better than a Disney-theme knockoff, not that I necessarily mind Disney themes. A limited edition version of the official release will also include a live performance DVD from 2013 of the entire Born in the USA album. For fifteen dollars, I'm good with it.