Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
- David Pollock
- 14 June 2019
A rich pastoral simplicity is at play on The Boss' latest take on the state of America
He's just one man making music, but to many of his fans – let's call them believers, for a certain amount of surrender to the fantasy of his stage persona is necessary to be one – Bruce Springsteen has always represented something more vividly elemental. To those who know his music, who await his latest release in order that it might help mould their own mood over the following weeks and months, he's nothing more than an expression of the conscience of America, and by extension the Western world.
Which all sounds somewhat dramatic, but there's a lot of truth in it, particularly because Springsteen is well aware of the tropes he's dealing in and has been for a long time. Whether he believes such a heroic narrative of himself is another matter, but as a man who took his recent autobiography to Broadway for nearly 250 shows over the last couple of years, he certainly plays up to his own grand narrative.
Although there's no inkling that Springsteen's own story is coming to an end – in fact, the realisation he'll be 70 this autumn should cause most to double-take – the release of Western Stars presents a distinctive and definitive later-life counterpoint to the young New Jersey punk of his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.
Where that record was the sonic equivalent of The Warriors, Western Stars is The Searchers. The cinematic cover image of a stallion kicking its hooves up in the desert recalls an era when the US Western story was just a simple coming-of-age tale of hardy people making their way amid an untamed landscape, without any of the colonial associations learned in recent times. Musically and lyrically, the album is replete with a feeling that Springsteen is casting his mind back to easier times, and trying to recapture a sense of the simplicity of youth from the perspective of a man in his elder years who knows you can never go back.
For Western Stars, his E Street Band is nowhere to be found. The last time his regular backing group was fully employed on record was with 2012's Wrecking Ball which directly addressed the effect of 2008's economic crash upon the American working class. On this album, their grit has been replaced by a rich pastoral simplicity.
'I'm just travellin' up the road / Maps don't do much for me, friend,' sighs Springsteen over the cute banjo and strings of 'Hitch Hikin''. 'It's the same old cliché / Wanderer on his way / Slippin' from town to town,' he muses on 'The Wayfarer', its tense piano chords and glistening strings more at home in the tradition of pristine MOR artists like The Carpenters or Hall & Oates. 'Tucson Train' rattles into existence amid rootsy pedal steel and a nostalgic wash of strings, a genuine train song in rhythm as well as lyric. These are the first three songs, and they each speak about the promise of the open road, of a new state of being emerging from movement across the continent, that very Kerouac-like American dream.
As ever with Springsteen's music, that darkness on the edge of town he once sang of persists, and amid the mournful steel guitar epic of the title track, the reminiscing, elderly film performer who narrates ('once I was shot by John Wayne') has lost his youth and vigour to a 'little blue pill'. Meanwhile the title character of 'Drive Fast (The Stuntman)' insists 'drive fast, fall hard', even as he counts the cost upon his broken body. In Springsteen's songs, the glory of youth and regret of old age exists within the same thought and the same lyric, a lifelong state of grace which acts upon listeners of any age.
In 'Chasin' Wild Horses', the record's equine cover star comes in from the prairie to be used as a fairly obvious metaphor, while 'Stones' is a regretful piece about the lies told in a life (although whether Springsteen regrets telling them or falling for them is open to interpretation). 'There Goes My Miracle' is a genuine old-time croon, of the kind which Jarvis Cocker might adopt were he filtering the spirit of Scott Walker or Lee Hazlewood, and 'Hello Sunshine' is a swooning, restful country ballad whose soft shuffle calls to mind Glen Campbell.
In truth, there's much on here which might sound corny in other hands. But Springsteen's particular alchemy and career-spanning context raises these songs to life as breathing monuments which carefully excavate that thread of 20th-century Americana which has permeated that continent's music since before he was born. Western Stars stands as an elegy to the faded hopes and dreams of the baby boom era. And while many may not mourn its passing, the generosity of spirit and willingness to hope for the future is an attitude we should all look to learn from and reclaim.
Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars is out now on Columbia.