Back in 1995, Bruce Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, a minimalist folk album that seemed to signal the Boss' intention to step away from stadium-scale rock stardom for good. It was the type of narrative he might construct for one of his own characters: After blowing up and getting in over his head (see: the underwhelming 1992 twofer Lucky Town and Human Touch), the small-town boy returned to his roots to start over.
Joad also rekindled Springsteen's love affair with folk music, first explored on 1982's Nebraska. He's continually circled back to that passion, which has led him to his latest muse, Rage Against the Machine guitarist and protest-song revivalist Tom Morello. The bulk of High Hopes, Springsteen's 18th studio album, was recorded in the midst of a tour that found the man also known as the Nightwatchman filling in for longtime E Street axman Steven Van Zandt. High Hopes is a road record: a mixed bag of long-kicked-around live tunes, new takes on old ideas, and a handful of covers. On paper, the dissonance between Morello's alarm-call riffs and the fine-tuned E Street engine sounds ugly—and indeed, his faux-DJ scratching on ''Heaven's Wall'' and limp funkifying on ''Harry's Place'' are the album's nadir. But even those sins seem to invigorate Springsteen, as though Morello's nervy combination of Zeppelin-size swagger and Bomb Squad noise pollution has emboldened him.
That influence is clearest on the album's two centerpieces: an official studio version of 2001's ''American Skin (41 Shots)'' and an epic rerecording of Joad's title track. ''American Skin,'' written in response to the infamous 1999 killing of an unarmed African immigrant by the NYPD, throbs with righteous indignation, while ''The Ghost of Tom Joad'' turns the original's reverent whisper into teeth-gnashing agitprop, with Morello handling lead-vocal duties. His bland intonations pale next to Springsteen's signature rasp, but he saves himself with blistering solos and a surgical sense of sonic escalation. High Hopes ends with an oddly fussy take on Suicide's classic post-punk lullaby ''Dream Baby Dream,'' but it should have closed on ''The Wall,'' a bittersweet elegy for two friends who never returned from Vietnam. Over a delicate smattering of piano and accordion, Springsteen finds his inner Seeger, quietly sneering, ''I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry.''
Songs about decades-old social injustices should make him sound out of touch, but High Hopes still crackles with immediacy, despite the cobbled-together nature of the material ''American Skin,'' for example, was recently resurrected in honor of Trayvon Martin. Like most of his later work, High Hopes believes in the human spirit but also in the power of outrage. And that, like Bruce, the more things change, the more they stay the same. B
''American Akin (41 Shots)'' A scathing call to arms
''The Wall'' A wistful tribute to lost friends