Bruce Springsteen’s music has always been associated with the streets, cars, and blue-collar life, but since the beginning of his career, he has also been fascinated with the freedom, isolation, promise, and mythology of the American West. After all, those tramps weren’t dreaming of walking in the sun in Alabama. It should come as no surprise then, that after spending more than a year commuting from his New Jersey home to Broadway, Springsteen returns to the West and its open roads for inspiration on his superb new solo album, “Western Stars,” out Friday.
Like all of the singer-songwriter’s best solo records, this collection of 13 songs is a curveball as he saves the electric guitars and booming drums for the next E Street Band album and explores a different side of his musical personality. Here, he takes a deep dive into orchestrated pop and country and western to examine wanderlust, heartbreak, and the desperate desire to make connections.
“Western Stars” finds Springsteen in character study mode with finely detailed storytelling about broken (sometimes literally) men on a quest to find meaning, renewal, or maybe just a bit of love. At their core and stripped of their orchestral flourishes and diverse musical dynamic, most of the songs here would not be out of place on his dark, acoustic efforts, “Nebraska,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” or “Devils and Dust.” Instead of burrowing into stark existential unease and barren psyches, though, Springsteen is now far more interested in romantic yearning and the search for some kind of home.
The narrators of these songs are an aging actor (“Western Stars”), a hitchhiker finding solace with whoever picks him up (“Hitch Hikin’”), a drifter (“The Wayfarer”), a stuntman fractured by work and life, and other isolated journeymen making their way through cheap hotels and waiting on trains that may never come. They are shells of their former selves, haunted by the past or the chaos in their heads (“If I could just turn off my brain”).
Despite their brevity — only one track clocks in longer than five minutes — the songs, produced by the singer and Ron Aniello, have the cinematic grandeur of the westerns that numerous characters from Springsteen’s younger years dreamed about. The spacious “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” “Sundown,” and the title track feature stoic outsiders seeking redemption or to fill the hole in their hearts. In fact, the album could be called “The Searchers.”
Unlike “Outlaw Pete,” the ill-conceived, meandering attempt at mythologizing a western antihero from 2009’s mostly enervated “Working on a Dream,” Springsteen’s writing here is masterfully concise, sharply observed, and self-aware. He knows he’s treading on familiar ground. In “The Wayfarer,” the narrator sings, “Same old cliché, a wanderer on his way.” On the Orbison-esque ballad, “There Goes My Miracle,” he works with poetic concision to tell a tale of failed love that speaks more potently than many of the songs of today’s morose, verbose wordslingers.
A simple gratitude for life is imbued in the voice of these tracks — a wonder at waking up to another sunrise. This sentiment has frequently reverberated in Springsteen’s work. Only when the 69-year-old artist sings “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” in “Western Stars,” it carries more weight than when the 29-year-old sang “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” in 1978. This album balances gravitas and grace, burden and beauty, as well as any in Springsteen’s canon.
For all the songs’ restless distress, ultimately this is an album marked by tentative hopefulness. What Springsteen understands is that while we often spend parts of our lives wandering in the desert, despondent with heads hung low, if we take a moment to glance up at the western stars, we just might see there’s still a little magic in the night.