While he’s often tagged as the regular guy’s rocker, Bruce Springsteen’s music offers a far more complex palette than fist-pumping working man’s anthems. He’s an artist that has always followed his muse in regards to charting the course of his musical direction. After the sprawling epic The River, his next record was the acoustic, Nebraska a low-fi sidestep into Woody Guthrie territory. Following the mega-success of Born in the USA, he released Tunnel of Love, an in-depth examination of the twists and turns of personal relationships, including the breakup of his first marriage, and some then-current tensions within his band. In recent years, Springsteen has gone on successful large-scale tours with The E Street Band and published his autobiography. He’s also done a stint on stage with the acclaimed one-man show, Springsteen on Broadway, featuring stripped-down versions of his best-known songs, accompanied by stories of his journey from a working-class, music-loving New Jersey kid to rock and roll icon.
His latest release, Western Stars, is an introspective record deeply entrenched in the sounds of the 1960s and 1970s. The album features echoes of the countrified pop of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb, as well as the lush arrangements of Burt Bacharach. Springsteen has acknowledged these influences in interviews, and you’ll also hear traces of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, a hint of Roy Orbison, and even a touch of Tom Waits, throughout the album’s 13 songs. Things kick off with “Hitch Hikin” a folk-laced ode to the thrill of thumbing a ride across the country. The song is filled with finely etched characters whose faces you can instantly visualize, thanks to the almost cinematic lyrics. The sense of longing for travel and an ache to experience the open road continues into the next track “The Wayfarer,” on which the narrator says he’s “a wanderer on his way, slipping from town to town.” That song features the albums initial foray into the full orchestral sound that permeates much of the record.
Western Stars is inhabited by characters reminiscing about past glories, including the faded actor of the melancholy title track, and the broken-down stunt performer featured on “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” both of whom have seen better days. In fact, some of these people can be seen as older versions of the young heroes of “Thunder Road” or “Born To Run,” who have discovered that riding off into the sunset for love and adventure isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. The main character of the elegant, hopeful “Tucson Train” is an exception; a guy who took off when things weren’t going so well in his life, and left his old world behind. He gets his act together and is now “waiting on the 5:15” the train on which his ex-lover is coming to re-join him. “Tucson Train” is one of the songs that most clearly acknowledge the 1960s sound of songs like “Wichita Lineman,” along with “Hello Sunshine” and the Orbison-esque “There Goes My Miracle.”
The album is filled with evocative tracks including the elegiac “Chasin’ Wild Horses” and the harder-edged “Somewhere North of Nashville” for which Springsteen adopts a gruff vocal tone to communicate the bitterness of the lead character, a failed songwriter. There are also picturesque tunes like “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel,” which chart the ups and downs of relationships in the eloquent style of a short story. Many of the lost souls on the album suffer from loneliness and shattered dreams, but the chance for redemption might be just around the bend for some of them. Springsteen is able to evoke the emotional underpinnings of these characters thanks to his keen sense of empathy. Finding a deep connection with his listeners has always been one of his greatest strengths. Western Stars is a thoughtful, mature record from an artist who still can re-invent himself, allowing his music to sound fresh, while still looking back on what’s gone before.
Photo: Frank Micelotta, courtesy Getty Images