This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn’t listened to it. There were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that.
But something’s happened to Bruce. Or to me.
I should say that I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I first heard “Rosalita” as a twelve-year-old back in Tennessee. I was in college when Born in the USA made him a superstar, and I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, with the E Street Band, the ’92 “alternate” band, the Sessions Band, and as a solo performer. I own all his legitimate releases, and a fair stack of bootlegs.
His last album, 2012’s Wrecking Ball, was the first time I felt like he was singing at me instead of to me, or for me. The new Celtic and overt gospel influences couldn’t disguise that these songs just lacked…something. And the re-recording of “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” released in a definitive version on the Live in New York City album in 2000, was simply unnecessary, as if he needed something to fill out the album (I’m not saying this was the case, just that, to me as a listener, it felt that way).
And now we get High Hopes.
Even the title track has been released before, back in 1995 as part of the Blood Brothers documentary package. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was part of the same Live in New York City album mentioned above, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of his Grammy-winning 1995 album. So right off the bat, there are three songs that we’ve heard before in landmark original versions. Yes, these are new versions, livened up by Tom (Rage in the Machine) Morello’s guitar solos, and certainly there’s no lack of commitment to the performances. But it’s also the equivalent of hearing stories we already know instead of new ones.
Which leads to the question: what’s the point of the album?
My friend Melissa Olson, author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead, once said that she thought some artists might just have a finite amount of art in them. This was apropos of director John Carpenter, whose work has certainly showed a decline, although I remain a fan (yes, even of his most recent film The Ward). I would never have thought this of Bruce, but perhaps it’s the case. Maybe the Boss has reached artistic retirement age. Certainly his last couple of concert tours have been more about preaching to the choir than converting new followers, a celebration of past glory days (heh) more than a forging of new ones. And maybe, at 64, that’s to be expected. But I’d hoped to follow him into the twilight with the same fervor I felt when he led me into adulthood.
And, since I’m not exactly young myself (nor old, I should add), I wonder with each new book if the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want to keep going past my sell-by date, artistically speaking. But will I know when I reach it?
So what do you think? Is there a finite amount of creativity and art in every artist?