Reviewing a new Bruce Springsteen record is a difficult thing for audiophiles. You really need to consider his records in context and since a vast majority of Bruce's music is written from the perspective of the everyman, it is not surprising that he may take a -- shall we say -- more populist approach to the sonics on his records. I've heard the gripes over the years from some audiophiles about Bruce's albums not sounding super duper and such, to which I -- for the most part -- have to shrug. I mean, really, more than anyone this side of Bob Dylan, Bruce is about the songs first and foremost. And his records DO sound good. Perhaps, however, they don't shine on the spiffy uber-systems many audiophiles own.
Well, here's another clue for you all: Bruce's albums sound pretty fantastic when played in the car.
That's not to say that there aren't some great sonics on Bruce's records, most of which will rock any decent home stereo system. But, when you're flying down the highway Springsteen's music resonates in a very special way with the road; it is the soundtrack to our lives zooming by everywhere around us. This shouldn't be surprising for a guy whose music took the best elements of late 50s and early 60s rock and roll to make a new sound -- merging flavors of Chuck Berry, Dion & The Belmonts and Buddy Holly with Phil Spector, Mitch Ryder, Gary U.S. Bonds and Bob Dylan (among others).
What did all of these artists have in common: their music sounded amazing coming out of a three-inch speaker in the car or a portable radio.
The new Springsteen album, High Hopes, is no exception. This collection of tracks recorded over different points in the Bruce's recent, new Millennium history holds together incredibly well. A track like "Harry's Place" sounds almost like a mid-80's Lou Reed tune, placing an underworld tale against a pulsing rock pop beat (note: Springsteen guested on Lou's "Street Hassle" in 1977, so this is not a huge leap to make). "American Skin (41 Shots)" also reflects gritty city life through a powerful, anthemic hook and chorus -- it is classic Bruce, really. The album goes on like that as one would expect from The Boss with some added sonic twists, from lush string sections to trippy guitar textures this side of Adrian Belew and Marc Ribot.
Guitarist Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine, guests on this album and has toured with Bruce in recent years. His contribution is really most notable on "The Ghost of Tom Joad" which rocks like nobody's business -- pretty stunning for a tune that began as a solo acoustic piece and grew up live in concert. High Hopes is essential for this track alone. There are no liner notes on the HDTracks download but I'm assuming its Morello who is making all the very cool guitar synth-y type sounds on that track, battling it out at times with Bruce's leads. Its really a stunning track.
Now, since this is an audiophile publication so I have to address the sound on this albums directly: quite honestly it's solid. And as I alluded to earlier, it sounds terrific in the car. I've been working off of the download from HDTracks.com. At first I was a bit thrown off as it's listed as a 44.1 kHz / 24-bit recording, a step beyond CD-quality. But that step between 16- and 24-bit is significant and it sounds pretty fine, with not too much digital grittiness getting in the way. Separation is really strong yet kick drums and bass are well centered and in your face throughout the album. In simpler terms: the album rocks. High Hopes sounds great played loud and its pretty much all about guitar amp tones and Bruce's voice. Big crunchy guitars drive the sound of the E-street Band and its fearless leader.
So where does all of this leave you audiophile Bruce Springsteen fans who prefer high resolution downloads over CD or LP? Well for home listening you might just have to put your sonic preferences behind you and just enjoy the album for what it is. This is the point I was trying to establish at the start of this review -- the recording quality is what it is and in this case it happens to add up to a fine new Springsteen album. Much like The Promise, an album of unreleased recordings from the late 70s which didn't see the light of day until recent years, these recordings on High Hopes warrant repeated listening. There's some great music here.
Eventually I am going to buy the LP version when it comes down in price (I will admit its a bit steep at $30-plus every where I've seen it; heck, I'm still waiting for Wrecking Ball and the other newer albums to come down in price!).
So, perhaps it's a good thing that Bruce gives us music that is, if you will, optimized for mobile listening. Don't freak out that you're not getting a 96/24 or 192/24 download. Load this up on your iPod, plug it into your car stereo and get out of your cocoon-like man-caves to see what's happening out in the world.
After all, audiophiles like us were born to run...
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.