Poor Nils Lofgren: The E Street Band's guitarist can make his Strat ring like a siren, but these days his Boss has eyes for another ax. On new LP High Hopes, a mostly hearty collection of covers, concert staples and 'roided-up redos, Bruce Springsteen proudly shows off his new noisemaker: Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. The pairing pays off. At one point, the BFFs conduct a ferocious exorcism of 1995's relative whisper The Ghost of Tom Joad; it's nothing short of spellbinding.
Brought into the fold when rhythm guitarist "Little Steven" Van Zandt couldn't swing an Aussie leg of the Wrecking Ball tour, Morello plugs in for seven of the 12 "new" tracks, which mostly aren't new at all. For instance, the title cut is a nod to L.A.-based band the Havalinas. Imagine if Bruce's Seeger Sessions band had Cuban food for dinner, and you get the rambunctious feel, a busky jam with Morello's licks adding switchblade edge to otherwise downtrodden lyrics.
Although Springsteen's usual gang is in place — including appearances by fallen soldiers Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici — this is the Bruce & Tom Show; they are kindred folk-rock populists, the working class on their minds and sonic oomph in their strings. Without Morello's inspiration, you wonder if the 64-year-old icon would have bothered quilting a studio album of cuts that were already incendiary, and arguably better, gamboling from the live stage.
But hey, the Boss knows what he's doing. Just listen to Morello kick circa-2000's American Skin (41 Shots) — a concert fave written after the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, given new relevance in the wake of Trayvon Martin — into poignant overdrive. He injects Prince-like gospel-funk into the Christian-rock hosannas of Heaven's Wall.
Morello can't save it all — or rescue Springsteen from clunky storytelling. The perilously '80s-sounding gangster lore of Harry's Place sounds like a bad Side 2 cut on a Miami Vice soundtrack. Frankie Fell in Love, which Morello isn't on, plays like a parody of a Springsteen party song, especially when he tries to rhyme Shakespeare with ... wait for it ... "havin' a beer."
For the most part, though, Springsteen cherry-picked from the vault wisely. There are beautiful moments on the record; Curt Ramm's mournful cornet is a blood-rich vein coursing through The Wall, a dirge about Springsteen friend and Vietnam casualty Walter Cichon ("If your eyes could cut through that black stone / Tell me would they recognize me"). An Escher-esque rendition of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream, with the Boss on harmonium, swirls like a fever dream.
Purists take heart: For all of Morello's stand-out energy, he gets swarmed by his E Street pals on Just Like Fire Would, a chummy track by Down Under stalwarts the Saints. The Boss lets his crew go gangbusters, and Morello can only smile and join the chiming parade. BFFs are one thing; family is another.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.