The voices in Western Stars are old and restless, lost and wandering. On the title track, Bruce Springsteen sings from the perspective of an actor who once worked with John Wayne but now mostly does commercialscredit cards, Viagra. Elsewhere, we meet a stuntman whose body has been destroyed by the job, a lonely widower idling in his old parking spot, and a failed country songwriter wondering if any of the sacrifices he made in his youth were worth it. Sung in a defeated growl, this latter track is among the shortest, starkest things that Springsteen has ever recorded: an acknowledgment of how quickly a songand lifecan pass by.
That song is called Somewhere North of Nashville, and its an outlier on Springsteens 19th studio album, both geographically and musically. On the rest of the record, Springsteen, with producer Ron Aniello, aims to conjure the golden expanse of the American West, with sweeping orchestral accompaniments unlike anything in his catalog. Springsteen albums are usually grand affairs but hes never made one that sounds so vast and luxurious throughout. Paired with the down-and-out characters who haunt its mountains and canyons, the purposefully anachronistic arrangementsrecalling jukeboxes, FM radios, sepia-toned montages, faded memoriescarry an elegiac tone. Its been a long time since popular music sounded like this, and it ties these characters to an era as much as a place.
Neither is where you expect to find Springsteen, who turns 70 this fall. He has spent the last few years drawing attention to the most beloved corners of his career, from lovingly curated box sets and live releases to an anniversary tour behind 1980s commercial breakthrough The River. His nostalgic bent culminated in two presentations of his life story: a 500-page memoir and a one-man Broadway show. Both begin with a wink toward his self-described fraudulencean absurdly successful entertainer who made his fortune by telling stories of blue-collar workersand end with solemn prayers and reflections on mortality. In the book, Springsteen discusses the struggles with depression that have threatened to derail him over the past 10 years. Mentally, just when I thought I was in the part of my life where Im supposed to be cruising, he writes, My sixties were a rough, rough ride.
All this looking back plays into the music of Western Stars. Hell, these days there aint no more, he sighs in the title track, Now theres just again. Repetition and waiting course through the record as constantssunrise, sunset. Theres a song called Chasin Wild Horses that prescribes its title as a means of counterbalancing pain; the arrangement grows more romantic as the chorus hardens into a routine. Springsteens narrative writing has always served to reflect his host of anxieties outward. A darkening mindset and feelings of isolation in his early 30s inspired him to summon the hellbound outsiders and dark highways of Nebraska; navigating his first marriage resulted in the doubt-plagued domestic portraits on 1987s Tunnel of Love. During his exhaustive live shows, he is known to venture into the crowd to be swarmed by the community thats united by his work. In the studio, he has to invent it himself: a sea of faces where he can find his own reflection. Western Stars transports him to a ghost town of broken male narrators, alone with their never-ending work and shortening timelines. He sings to us from somewhere among them, looking wearily beyond.
Following 2012s Wrecking Ball and 2014s High Hopesrecords that responded to current political issues and sought to modernize the E Street Bands rocknroll exorcisms with loops and samples and Tom Morellothis music is a left turn. The stories, however, remain archetypically Springsteen. Occasionally, he sounds like hes checking in with characters from his songbook, furthering them along or bidding them farewell. For those wild spirits who worked 9 to 5 and somehow survived till the night, theres Sundown, a tour through a bittersweet twilight where you long for companionship. After all his promises of escapethese two lanes that could take us anywheretheres the hardened narrator of Hello Sunshine, cautioning that miles to go is miles away.
And while nearly every one of Springsteens road songs is sung from the driver's seat, this record opens with Hitch Hikin, a folk song propelled by a gentle windmill of strings, sung by a drifter with nowhere to go. He invites us into the backseats of three cars, whose drivers stand in for the pillars of Springsteens career. Theres a father, a trucker headed toward a big open highway, and a solitary racer in a vintage model from 1972, which also happens to be the year that Springsteen scored his record deal with Columbia. These avatars introduce a record that favors new sounds and perspectiveshe often sings as a shadow or a visitor, giving credence to a recently revealed habit for crashing strangers funeralsbut remains carefully rooted in his history. David Sancious, an early collaborator who played the virtuosic piano solo in 1973s New York City Serenade, returns here to guide The Wayfarer to its tragic-triumphant conclusion. His jazzy touch on the keys offsets the thump of Springsteens acoustic guitar and the earthy twang of his baritone, as open-hearted and desperate as it has ever sounded.
In this song, Springsteen reframes his wanderlust in a series of confessions. He acknowledges that put in his position most people would be happy with what they have. He knows his worries are nothing new. The title of Western Stars is a phrase that also appears in Ulysses, a 19th-century Tennyson poem that Springsteen has drawn from before. (Another, more ubiquitous, Tennyson quote is invoked at the end of this record: Its better to have loved, he sings in Moonlight Motel, his voice trailing off.) Its easy to see why Springsteen finds resonance in these particular texts: defining works by a grief-stricken poet wondering if our brief, complicated lives are worth the legacy we leave behind. Ulysses is narrated by a hero approaching old age, returning from a long journey only to realize he felt more fulfilled on the road. So he heads out again, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. And stay alive, if he can.