Western Stars – Bruce Springsteen: Again, the call of the road

Simon’s followed Bruce Springsteen’s music for more than 40 years, and wanted to take his time absorbing the artist’s latest album, Western Stars. He’s glad he was patient. He finds it a richly rewarding work.

Three questions lie in wait when you approach a new album from Bruce Springsteen. One, what sound will it bring: will it be rock, folk, country, soul, or pop? What voice will be use? The raspy belt-it-out rocker, the softer country/folk artist, or something of that Jersey soul man? And, third, and most importantly, what’s he saying? Will it be political, socially minded, relationship oriented, or just plain fun?

The advance word on Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album, Western Stars, focused mainly on the music. We were told to expect something new : a lush sound, something of the Burt Bacharach/Glenn Campbell style of the late 60’s and early 70’s. And yes, that is indeed what Western Stars is mostly about, although I didn’t think it was that new. Go back to his 2009 album Working on a Dream and check out the songsThis Life, Life Itself and Kingdom of Days. You’ll find a rich instrumentation easily the equal of anything on this new album. And Western Stars blends several styles, often in one song. There’s banjo and steel guitar aplenty here to go with the string arrangements. Some of those string signature lines also evoke earlier works. What we hear in the first phrases of The Wayfarer and Tuscon Train for example, aren’t that far away from songs on The Rising.

But Bruce Springsteen has always been one to pull in various musical styles and blend them into something which is his own, but which feels immediately connected to pop music history. It’s new but it always feels like home. On Western Stars, two songs were absolute standouts for me: the title track, and Stones.

His voice? Well this album was recorded mostly two or three years ago apparently, and has laid in wait for the artist to decide when best to release it. So it’s not necessarily how Springsteen sounds right now. For all that, he’s in fine form. We get the soul/pop feel of There Goes My Miracle, the folkier feel of Hitch Hikin’, and while there’s no out and out rock singing here, Tuscon Train probably comes closest. I’m so familiar with Springsteen’s voice it’s like an old friend. It feels full of life’s experience, of endurance, sadness and joy.

And what is he saying on Western Stars? This question is taking me longer to answer and of course part of the songwriter’s art is to present something which might mean different things to different people. Springsteen has written his way into many people’s hearts, presenting songs soaked in yearning and honesty, crafted with detailed observations of his own life and the lives he’s seen unfold around him. He’s painted a rich and often troubled portrait of America, and such is the art of his presentation that his work has spoken to many thousands of people from many lands.

Sometimes he’s focused on social and political issues, as in Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and The Rising. Other times it has been relationship-based, like Tunnel of Love and much of Working on a Dream. His early albums shared stories of a young man desperate to break the chains of his home life and seek glory out on the road. Later, that man realises that heading out on the highway doesn’t mean much unless one day you find a home of your own, somewhere. The geography of these songs took us from New Jersey across to California and back again.

In recent years his audience has discovered how much of his journey has been an internal one. As Springsteen told us in his autobiography and on the Broadway stage last year, he’s battled depression for many years.

So perhaps the most interesting thing about Western Stars is that here we have an artist who in recent times has been telling his audience how important “home” is, and yet in this album he’s out on the road again.

So what’s going on? Well these stories are about people who accept the comfort and security of home as important and essential, but who nevertheless are drawn, despite themselves, to leave that security for something else. The hitchhiker in the opening song doesn’t care where he goes, he’s just got to go: “Maps don’t do much for me friend, I follow the weather and the wind.” He meets a family man with a pregnant wife, and a trucker with a photo of his girl on the dashboard, and that’s just fine. But he’ll keep moving.

The wayfarer of the second song accepts the same truth of home: “Where kindness falls and your heart calls for a permanent place of your own.” But even so, the road calls him. “..when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head.”

What is the point of this need to move? In several songs, it’s to find love, to escape the pain of unrequited or lost love, or to hope that an old love returns. And the songs work well in this respect, but you can’t help feeling that something else is in play. A restlessness is involved. There are many references to the passing of a day, to waking up, to sunrise and sunset or sundown. The sun gives light and life and as much of this album evokes the last part of a day’s light, you can’t help but connect this imagery to an artist reaching the latter stages of his life, reflecting on what he’s done, what he hasn’t, and the burdens he’s had to carry.

Those burdens clearly involve his own demons. In Tuscon Train, “..that voice that keeps me awake at night, when a little peace would make everything right.” Or on Chasin’ Wild Horses: “..tryin’ to keep my temper down is like chasin’ wild horses..” On Hello Sunshine: “Had enough of heartbreak and pain, I had a little sweet spot for the rain.” The long running Springsteen dedicated website Backstreets suggests the song Sundown may reference the battle Springsteen’s mother has had with alzheimers.

So maybe getting out on the road is about a need to escape not just the warmth of home but the feeling of being closed in, to get out and free the mind.

So it’s a rich piece of work. If I were to find fault I’d say it’s perhaps a couple of songs too long. I could have done without Drive Fast (The Stuntman) and Chasin’ Wild Horses. Both songs fit the theme of the album but the tunes sound too much like what I’ve heard before, and the lyrics just get too far on to the side of being overwrought. Some have criticised the album’s jauntiest song, Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, but I liked it for its change of pace.

All in all, I found this deeply emotional album. There is sadness here, and perhaps resignation, but as always Springsteen finds some hope in life to hang on to. And that hope is of course life itself. As he says in the opening of the title track Western Stars, “I wake up in the morning just glad my boots are on, instead of empty in the whispering grasses down the Five at Forest Lawn.” Better to be alive. Once you’re gone you’re gone. You stay alive as long as you can Mr Springsteen, and keep offering us your art.

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