In his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen wrote about his fondness for hitchhiking, and the fact that he did it often, as a young man in the ’60s.
“Every sort of rube, redneck, responsible citizen and hell-raiser the Jersey Shore had to offer, I rode with ’em,” he wrote. “I loved hitchhiking and meeting people. I miss it today.”
Western Stars, Springsteen’s new album — which will be released on June 14 – starts with a song, “Hitch Hikin’,” that evokes that enthusiasm, and the carefree days (“I follow the weather and the wind”) that are long behind him now. I don’t think it’s an accident that one of the cars mentioned in the song is a “souped-up ’72”: Springsteen was discovered and signed to Columbia Records in 1972, so that was a big coming-of-age year for him. In a sense, ’72 was his last year of innocence.
The gorgeous, consistently absorbing and only rarely innocent-sounding Western Stars is populated by the types of rubes, rednecks, responsible citizens and hell-raiser a hitchhiker might meet, in the course of a lifetime. It’s one of the most character-driven albums of Springsteen’s career, and pretty much devoid of anything resembling a rock anthem. Springsteen’s vocal delivery tends to be dry and deliberate, though it occasionally builds to a heartfelt croon.
It’s a musically cohesive album, with its rich, orchestral arrangements evoking ’60s and ’70s hits by Glen Campbell, Harry Nilsson, Burt Bacharach, Roy Orbison and others. It sounds, in other words, unlike any other Springsteen album (though there have been hints of this sound in songs such as”Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” “Secret Garden” and “Queen of the Supermarket”).
Lyrically, though, it very much continues themes that Springsteen has been developing throughout his 46 years as a recording artist. Some of the characters are born to run. Others are feeling the pulls of the ties that bind. Some are trying to find a balance between these two traits that coexist within themselves.
Springsteen signals that he knows he’s visited this thematic territory before by singing, on “The Wayfarer”:
Same sad story, love and glory goin’ ’round and ’round
Same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town
Some find peace here on the sweet streets, the sweet streets of home
Where kindness falls and your heart calls for a permanent place of your own
Regrets? These characters have had a few. Or, as Springsteen sings in “Chasin’ Wild Horses”:
Guess it was somethin’ I shouldn’t have done
Guess I regret it now
Ever since I was a kid
Tryin’ to keep my temper down is like
Chasin’ wild horses
The album’s title has a double meaning, referring not only to celestial bodies but also, in the title track, to an actor in western movies, grown older now and living, to some extent, in the past. He is making ends meet by appearing in commercials, and enjoying the fact that people will buy him drinks because he was once killed by John Wayne in a movie. (In other words, he’s like the ex-high school baseball player in “Glory Days”).
Similarly, the resilient central character in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” has the scars to show for the physical chances he took in his profession. But even though he’s got a steel rod in his leg, he shrugs, “it walks me home.”
Not surprisingly, some of the most accessible songs already have been released. “Tucson Train” is a crisp, catchy song about starting over again. And “There Goes My Miracle” swells with larger-than-life emotion in a way that most of this generally understated album doesn’t.
It will be interesting to see what Springsteen does with these songs live, since they often sound more like something you’d hear on a movie soundtrack than at an arena-rock show. My guess is he’ll rearrange some of them rather than trying to reproduce them, note for note. But that’s really a question for another day. For now (or, I guess I should say, once the album comes out), just set aside some time so you can really focus on the music, maybe via headphones — so you can hear every small detail — and enjoy it.
I tend to view Springsteen’s recording career as two acts: 1973-1987 and 1992-2019 (nothing much came out between ’88 and ’91). Act I represents one of the most stunning creative surges in rock history; little in Act II comes close to the best songs and albums of Act I.
Yet Springsteen has had some moments of greatness in 1992-2019, too, and Western Stars, I believe, should be regarded as one of his best albums of that time period. And let me remind you, now, that Springsteen is 69 years old: I can’t think of another artist who has, at that age, released an album that has been so solid in its songwriting as well as such a big departure from the artist’s sonic norm.
To order the album, visit brucespringsteenstore.com.
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