Bruce Springsteen's new album's title may be steeped in promise, but a sizeable portion of his devoted fanbase have considerably lower expectations for High Hopes.
Springsteen is something of an enigma, even amongst that most eclectic and unpredictable breed of entertainer, the rock 'n' roll icon. Despite the fact that he has laid bare his soul for his audience night after night for over four decades, he is a fiercely private man off-stage, and resides just a stone's throw away from the New Jersey county in which he grew up, having returned from a brief flirtation with life in Hollywood in the 1990s. Interviews are hard to come by, other than those necessitated by the PR behemoth that must accompany every major label release.
What fans are left with to construct a persona of the man is his music. Helpfully, various common thematic threads can be traced all the way through Springsteen's storied recording career, from 1973's Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ to last year's Wrecking Ball. Freedom and entrapment, celebrating Americana whilst carefully guarding against blind patriotism, the blue collar working life - all strands can be found in virtually every one of his releases in one form or another.
However while Springsteen has stayed true to his thematic vision and his increasingly prevalent political convictions, the manner in which he's illuminated these themes has consistently evolved and regressed, like a restless tide. From the improvisational jazz-like stylings of his early gigs, resplendent with rambling versions of already lengthy tunes, to the pounding, radio-ready rock of the Born in the USA-era, the bleak, folk-infused melodies found on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad to the joyous, horn-driven tones of his "classic" period (which spawned two of his best known albums, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town), Springsteen has never been one to rest on his laurels and settle in to a familiar groove. Prior to the formation of the E-Street Band and the commencement of his recording career at Columbia, he dabbled in genres ranging from prog rock to Buddy Holly-inspired rockabilly.
Despite Springsteen's ever shifting musical vision, the bipolar reaction that has greeted the announcement of his eighteenth studio album stems from fans yearning to return to the style that first launched him into American consciousness. While many remain cautiously optimistic, others were less hopeful: "I'm torn between furious anger, hurt and betrayal and the worst kind of sadness" bemoaned one particularly unhappy user on the Greasy Lake Springsteen forum; another declared the day of the announcement to be "the worst day in Springsteen's career".
The two tracks release from High Hopes thus far - the title track and a cover of Tim Scott McConnell's "Dream Baby Dream" - and the confirmed personnel both suggest that Springsteen's experimentation is to continue unabated. Of most interest is the increased presence of Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who, while sharing many of Bruce's political convictions, represents an entirely different strand of rock. Morello has stood in for long-serving E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt on occasion in the past and has become known for his blistering cover of "The Ghost of Tom Joad", from the 1995 album of the same name, which reappears on High Hopes, presumably in Morello's reworked form.
Of course it'll never be possible to produce an E Street record that doesn't owe something to the style that Springsteen made his name with on Born to Run. But while his seminal breakthrough record owed much to the bombast of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound as well as the '50s roots of early rock 'n' roll, his more recent efforts have delved further into the past, influenced by everything from folk (he toured a show of Pete Seeger's music in 2006) to traditional Celtic styles, as well as considerably more modern strands, such as hip-hop.
Fans' desire to hear Springsteen return to one particular sound is completely understandable, but one that seems almost certain to be in vain. The fact that even that trademark Thunder Road-style was far from his first iteration, combined with the gradual age-enforced breakup of his trusty backing band - organist Dan Federici died in 2008, saxophonist and on-stage foil of Springsteen's Clarence Clemons in 2011 - means that an attempted return would fly somewhat in the face of the band's frequently-espoused "Blood Brothers" bond. There's also considerable debate over which period represented Springsteen's pinnacle, and by extension, which era fans would like to see him revisit the most. Even members of the E Street band disagree: Van Zandt refers to Bruce's "highest evolution" being the '60s-infused pop style which the man himself had largely shunned until the recent release of the outtakes selection The Promise. The old adage that it's best to never go back has been borne out time and again by a variety of artists attempting to rediscover former glories, and with the abandon that Springsteen is producing new material (or at least relatively new material - High Hopes is largely made up of songs that have been floating around for some time and covers), it seems unlikely that he would even consider reverting to a former style for an entire record.
Still, hadn't stemmed the flow of disappointment from sections of his fan base, despite the liner notes released alongside the album stressing the nature of the project. What the reaction to High Hopes has demonstrated is the unenviable conundrum that many older acts face; attempt to reproduce the fare that made them famous and face unflattering comparisons; resist releasing anything new and be derided as out of ideas or past it; or, as Bruce is doing, release material at such a prolific rate that inevitably, a degree of entitlement creeps into the mindsets of some followers. As another Greasy Lake patron puts it, "I am just so thankful that my favourite is not touring as a "greatest hits retirement fund top-up artist."