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The albeit temporary arrival of Tom Morello in the ranks of the E Street Band marks a low point in Bruce Springsteen's long recording career: the Rage Against The Machine man's trademark turntable-scratch guitar technique is jaw-dropping in the context of his own rap-rock band, but transported to Springsteen's blue-collar environment, it is an alien element that draws attention away from the other bits of a song each time it gatecrashes the party.
This was a musical marriage born of necessity: Morello joined the band on the Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour while Steven Van Zandt was absent filming TV show Lilyhammer. Setting their brief collaboration in studio stone only underlines what an ill-considered project this 18th album is, as it hastily assembles covers, re-recordings and new versions of dusted-off demos.
While Springsteen nostalgists will be happy to hear the late Clarence Clemons on the funky groove of Harry's Place, his snaky sax solo is diminished by the bleeps and squalls Morello lays over it. Worse still is the guitar solo that fills the second half of an extended take on The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Morello's showboating utterly at odds with the meaning of the lyrics.
Elsewhere, American Skin (41 Shots), despite its return to Springsteen's live set after the death of Trayvon Martin, is not angry enough in this stadium-sentimental arrangement; the same goes for a cover of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream which, after a moody harmonium intro, becomes an arm-wavy ballad with no edge whatsoever.
The best stuff either does not feature Morello at all or tunes him down to background texture rather than leading role. Springsteen puts in a solid songwriting shift on Heaven's Wall and The Wall (both written back in the day), while This Is Your Sword and the title track fall into that big-group folk-soul revue style that's become common in The Boss's post-Seeger Sessions output. The album highlight is arguably Hunter Of Invisible Game, with its Dylanesque cadences and secure lyrical footing on the mythical landscapes of Springsteen's America.
Usually, at this point, a critic would say High Hopes is for completists only. As someone who owns every Springsteen album, I'm not even sure that is true this time around.