Bruce Springsteen’s new LP Western Stars finds the Boss back in top form, in control of his muse, throwing off hooks shrouded in poprock adornments from the past fifty years. The album has strings, horns, Bacharach and David orchestrations, Born to Run sparkly piano, and Nebraska-era acoustic guitar appegiations. And the songs! Not since Tunnel of Love has Bruce produced such a coherent set of songs, such a thematically clear statement of where he’s at. There’s hope, love, loss and regret – the usual, in other words. But the balance of themes and performance captured here in on par with some of his very best work.
Western Stars is Springsteen’s cinematic soundtrack of a neoliberal America. Where Born to Run captured the insecurity of a boom-time working class that might just lose anyway, Western Stars bookends Darkness at the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s prescient, dark rumination about the beginning of the end of the economic good times for working people at the close of the 1970s. But with Western Stars, the damage is now done, and his various protagonists are just trying to hang on. Or simply hang on to their regret. And they’re still drifting. Songs like “The Wayfarer,” “Western Stars,” and “Chasin’ Wild Horses” all evoke that Springsteen-esque ramble, mixing steel guitar and a judicious dollop of strings. But the thread of possible redemption formerly dominant in Springsteen’s earlier work is much weaker here. With it’s Louisiana Cajun pep “Sleepy Joe’s Café” is the one backward glance at the good times. But compared to the dour mood animating the derelict and overgrown “Moonlight Motel” it can’t help but sound a bit forced.
Somewhere North of NashvilleStones
And then there’s the loss. Because no one does wistful regret like the Boss. The mournful “Somewhere North of Nashville” captures the pain of letting ambition get in the way of love, only to end up with neither. “Stones” is a slow-paced, country dirge-like rumination about betrayal. And then there’s the magisterial “There Goes My Miracle,” a song whose vocal soars with Roy Orbison-like beauty and sorrow. At his best, Springsteen gives feeling to that sense of failure that accompanies a late recognition of life’s poor choices. Still, the record is not completely devoid of hope. The acoustic “Hitch Hikin’” captures the joy of travel and discovery, while the horn and piano-heavy “Tucson Train” celebrates the joy of an imminent romantic reunion.
There Goes My MiracleHitch Hikin’
On this album, as with most of his previous releases, Springsteen provides no easy answers. His work is a series of life sketches, highlighting a nearly invisible working class experience. It exists as a curio for some, a desperate reflection for others. In the end, “Hello Sunshine” has the Boss admitting he may have had a thing for the lonely town, the blues, and the empty road. But now he simply asks for a bit of sunshine. And we’re left wondering if he’ll get it. Or, by extension, whether we’ll get it.
Bruce is everywhere. So check out Western Stars, give it a few listens, live with it for a bit, and see if you don’t agree it’s one of the best things he’s delivered in a long while.