A few years ago, while flipping through the channels I stumbled upon the broadcast 25th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Anniversary Concerts. I had read about the concerts previously and was intrigued by the one of a kind collaborations: U2, Fergie and Mick Jagger doing “Gimme Shelter” (which was god awful), Lou Reed and Metallica, and Tom Morello playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.
I happened to switch on right as Morello was blasting his way through the end of a re-worked version of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Morello has always been an impressive guitarist, but his work here was incredible. His famous scratching style of playing perfectly suited the dark injustice that lay at the heart of the lyrics. Both the audience and the band were clearly feeding off of Morello’s energy. This was a performance for the ages.
It shouldn’t really come as surprise that Morello and Springsteen would be brothers in arms. Morello might be a bit more extreme – and perhaps even smarter than Springsteen – in his politics but they’re both cut from the same cloth: standing up for the working man and other social injustices of the world. They both share a love of Woody Guthrie and believe that popular music can carry a lot of weight.
At the time I just assumed that Morello was just a fan and friend who would occasionally pop up at Springsteen shows. But fast forward a few years to the release of 2012’s Wrecking Ball and Morello appears on 2 tracks: “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression”. His signature sound is apparent on these 2 tracks, but he never out-steps his boundaries. These two songs are among the most political on an album that is almost explicitly political. When Springsteen’s narrator on “Jack of All Trades” concludes that he’ll “shoot the bastards on sight” who won’t give him a job or a chance, the song begs for Morello’s sonic intensity to end the song.
In the 2 years since Wrecking Ball, Morello has become a de facto member of the E-Street Band. He’s filled in for Steve Van Zandt on tours and re-worked some of Springsteen’s solos to fit his style. And now with Springsteen’s latest album High Hopes, Morello is all over the album.
And with the exception of a studio version of the re-worked “Tom Joad” which they’ve performed many times live, I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing. Morello’s style is beat suited to heaviness – which is why “The Ghost of Tom Joad” works – but elsewhere his fills and leads sit clumsily alongside the soul influenced “Heaven’s Wall” and the horn-heavy title track. Even worse is his riff on “Harry’s Place” which sounds like it could be a Rage Against the Machine out-take. I kept waiting for Zack De La Rocha to come out of hiding and go a guest verse on the song.
Let’s also keep in mind that the E-Street band already has 3 great guitarists: Springsteen, Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. Do they really need another one – even if he’s technically not a full-fledged member? I would say no, as long as Springsteen can still do the knife-cutting solo on “Candy’s Room” and Lofgrin still gets to stretch out on “Because the Night”.
I understand why Springsteen would want Morello around. With Rage he created a whole new sonic palette of what the guitar could do. Nobody sounds like him. And of course, there’s their political views. Parts of High Hopes sound as if Springsteen is over-reaching simply because he can and Morello is more than willing – and why wouldn’t he? (I’m not necessarily blaming him for wanting to play with Springsteen.) It seems to me like Springsteen is putting a friendship and common interests above the music. This might be the first time I would ever accuse Springsteen of settling for something sub-standard.
If Morello and Springsteen want to work together further they might be wise to explore a true collaborative album. Morello’s solo work as The Nightwatchman fits in perfectly with the themes Springsteen has explored in albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad.
In other words: leave the wah-wah at home and create a real protest album together. Now that would be a radical idea.