He’s 69, and he has nothing to prove. But Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Western Stars, sees him still pushing himself, artistically.
As Bruce Springsteen approaches his 70th birthday, he’d be excused for enjoying an extended victory lap, and that’s what the last few years have represented. He spent over a year doing his Springsteen On Broadway show — a 236 show run that, according to Broadway World, sold out 99.99% of its tickets and grossed over $113 million. That show, of course, was based on his 2016 best selling memoir, Born To Run. Before that, he went on a lengthy tour to promote the expanded box set reissue of 1980’s double album, The River.
But Western Stars shows that there’s still gas in the tank and that the man still has stories to tell. Is it really, as Rolling Stone says in their four-star review, like little else in his catalog? Not really. His early ’70s croon, which he resurrected a decade ago on 2009’s Working On A Dream, is back (it’s in full force on “There Goes My Miracle,” which could be an outtake from that album). The lush production of that album is here too, as are strings reminiscent of some of the songs from 2005’s Devils And Dust.
As Springsteen himself told Variety, “Really, that record is influenced by Southern California pop music of the ’70s,” comparing it to “Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, those kinds of records. I don’t know if people will hear those influences, but that was what I had in my mind. It gave me something to hook an album around; it gave me some inspiration to write. And also, it’s a singer-songwriter record. It’s connected to my solo records writing-wise, more Tunnel of Love and Devils and Dust, but it’s not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives.”
Another influence you might hear on the album could be Jim Croce, the folk-pop singer who died in a plane crash in 1973, just months after Springsteen debuted with Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey. Croce’s discography was filled with vivid tales of lonely characters, their stories told over pristinely produced soundscapes, often employing lush string sections: “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels),” “Photographs And Memories,” “Time In A Bottle,” “New York’s Not My Home,” “I Got A Name,” “I Have To Say I Love You In A Song,” and “These Dreams.”
“Thumb stuck out as I go,” Springsteen sings on the first line of the opener, “Hitch Hikin’,” the story of a directionless traveler. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind.” Obviously, it’s unlikely that he’d be singing from his experience — if he ever hitchhiked, he probably hasn’t done so in the past few decades — but as a songwriter and artist, he’s always looking for new stories to tell and new ways to tell them. As always, he’s great at telling stories of regular folks; you could picture a bunch of guys in a circle of chairs at a support group meeting, or sitting around a fire under a bridge (a la Grapes of Wrath), or even at “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” and each song represents one of their stories. There’s the actor of “Western Stars” (“Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end/That one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks… set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend”). He may have crossed paths with the star of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” (“I got two pins in my ankle, and a busted collarbone/A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home”). Those guys can probably relate to the songwriter in “Somewhere North Of Nashville,” who “came into town with a pocketful of songs” but “didn’t last long.”
In “Sundown,” we learn of someone working all summer “on the county line,” waiting for his lover to return (“When the summer’s through, you’ll come around”). He may be kidding himself, and he probably recognizes the guy in “Tuscon Train,” who has left his past behind: “Now I carry my operator’s license, and spend my days just runnin’ this crane,” but is hoping to show an estranged lover “a man can change.” And he probably understands the protagonist in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” who regrets something he did, thanks to his explosive temper in his past. Now, he’s just trying to keep his nose clean: “I make sure I work ’til I’m so damn tired, way too tired to think.”
The one guy who seems to find some happiness — or at least, a wistful smile — is the star of “Moonlight Motel,” who visits said motel. In his memories, it’s nearly forgotten and mostly deserted, but it’s where he finds some happiness, “rustlin’ sheets.” He recalls “Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret, I promised I’d never tell.” But today, even that’s gone: the motel is boarded up, and we can presume that those trysts are far in the rearview mirror. Still, he pulls out a bottle of Jack, “Poured one for me and one for you as well.”
“Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot.”
Nearly 50 years after Springsteen debuted with his tales of silicone sisters, go-cart Mozarts and little early-pearlies, ragamuffin gunners, bald and pregnant nuns, Jimmy The Saint, Eighth Avenue sailors in satin shirts, the best apostle in the Bronx, and the whiz-bang gang from uptown, he hasn’t lost his ability to create characters and to set a scene.
Like The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Devils And Dust, the songs range from mid-paced to slow, and the slick production can be off-putting at times; it would have been great if Springsteen brought in the band from his excellent and underrated Seeger Sessions album from 2006. The album may take a few listens to really appreciate, and fans might ask, “Do I really need to put effort into enjoying a new album?” But fans may have asked that about Nebraska or Tunnel of Love, back in the day. Will Western Stars hold up as well as those two albums? Time will tell, but you won’t know if you don’t give it a shot.