Bruce Springsteen has been in New Jersey-guy-makes-good career summation mode since 2016. That’s when he first issued his Born To Run memoir, and then neatly turned the life story told therein into an artful, acclaimed Broadway show that ran for 15 sold-out months.
That period of self-analysis and musical retrospection came to an end in December, when Springsteen on Broadway closed and became a Netflix special. All the autobiographical loose ends were tied up, and made as much sense as they ever will.
So what’s the next move?
A smart one, it turns out. Springsteen fans have been clamoring for another tour with the E Street Band, what with the clock ticking — the Boss turns 70 in September — and two charter members in Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici already long gone. And the fans’ wish has been granted, with the songwriter confirming that not only is there a 2020 tour on the way, but an album’s worth of material has been written and is ready to be recorded with the band.
But before that unfolds, Springsteen has something else in store. On Friday, June 14, he’ll release Western Stars (Columbia ***), his 19th studio album. It was first teased in April with “Hello Sunshine,” a wistful, melancholy nod to the early 1970s Los Angeles country-rock sound that evoked Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb and seemed to signal that Springsteen was testing out a new (for him) musical direction.
Western Stars bears that out, though not always in ways that “Hello Sunshine” suggested. It’s a 13-song collection that fuses familiar motifs and musical themes — sturdy, character driven folk and rock songs in which a wounded sojourner (often unsuccessfully) seeks the human connections that could make him whole — integrated with orchestrated pop stylings in a manner Springsteen has never so fully committed to before.
Starting with the stark, harrowing Nebraska in 1982, Springsteen has frequently alternated full-on, arena-sized rock albums with something smaller scaled and personal.
Western Stars fits the mold of solo albums like Tunnel of Love (1987), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils & Dust (2005), but with key differences. On those records, Springsteen tended to play most of the instruments himself.
The new album — which was produced by Ron Aniello — is by contrast a full-blown studio production. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, E Street keyboard and accordion player Charles Giordano and ex-E Streeter David Sancious all appear, and so does multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, pianist Matt Rollins, and a team of steel guitar players.
It has its share of quiet, intimate moments, but is also unafraid to let a string section takes center stage on the opening track “Hitch Hikin’,” or let the French horns and bassoons blow on “The Wayfarer.”
In that regard, Western Stars is an unabashedly old-fashioned album, and one that comes off as somewhat mannered at first, as Springsteen sings in a full-on croon on baroque pop romancers like “There Goes My Miracle.”
But Western Stars is without question a grower, and most of its musical and narrative gambits pay off. Like Tom Joad, it’s a California album — though it was mostly recorded in Jersey. It feels the pull of the lonesome road and wide open sky — characters cross over the San Bernadino line, are smothered by the Santa Ana winds, and when they get “tired of the pills and the rain” in San Francisco head out of town on the “Tucson Train.”
And the Western Stars aren’t just something to gaze upon from the bed of your El Camino. The title also connects to Hollywood, and bit players in the American dream machine of the entertainment industry.
The protagonist of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman),” first got acquainted with acts of derring-do when “at 9, I climbed high into the boughs of our neighborhood’s tallest tree / I don’t remember the fear, just the breeze.” It’s sounds a lot like the way Springsteen described himself surveying the scene in Freehold, N.J., as a boy on Born to Run and his Broadway show.
That character is literally among the walking wounded — “I got two pins in my ankle, and a busted collarbone / A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” He has a kinship with the similarly scarred small-time actor at the center of the title track, a guy whose claim to fame is that, at the start of his career, he was once shot by John Wayne.
Springsteen has explored these kind of sad, weary character types as he’s aged, men like the boxer in “The Hitter,” from Devils & Dust, or the character in the title song to the 2008 Mickey Rourke movie The Wrestler.
They’re guys who have defined their self worth by inhabiting tough guy masculine archetypes that lose their usefulness as youth slips away. They’re bruised and battered and in most cases hopelessly alone, but they still retain a hard-earned decency.
Western Stars is not an overtly political album by Springsteen’s standards, but the Boss subtly lets you know where he stands in the title track, when the actor spends his Sundays saddling with Mexican-American charros he calls “our American brothers” who bring the roping and riding old ways he long for back to life again.
In his post-Tunnel of Love writing, Springsteen has often struggled to tell story songs that feel deeply personal. He has the gift of empathy as a writer, but particularly on his solo records, the lyrics have often felt more reportorial and thoroughly researched than actually lived in. (The Rising, in 2002, is the great exception because it’s reaction to an event that was tragic on a communal and personal level.)
Those pitfalls are largely avoided, in part because by working as an homage to classic pop styling of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he’s disciplined himself to write in an economical style that’s not overburdened by blue-collar detail.
Western Stars succeeds because it’s confident in its own voice, but isn’t a great or flawless album. Listeners who are put off when Springsteen allow a twang to creep into his voice as if he were born somewhere south of Jersey will find a few instances to complain.
“Chasing Wild Horses,” is a static spot that slows momentum, though it does contain haunting, lonely lyrics such as: “I shout your name in the canyon / The echo throws it back.”
“Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” the album’s one frisky party tune is included for good reason: It’s the only song where a nurturing community is gathered, and “Monday morning’s a million miles away.” But it’s more than a little corny, and its unimaginative title too close to that of the Coasters’ hit that’s the title to the Lieber and Stoller jukebox musical.
But with Western Stars, Springsteen largely succeeds in the tricky task of working within an established genre, and nonetheless delivering a personal statement that fits with the themes he’s been exploring his entire career.
The guys who start off the album on “Hitch Hikin’” and “The Wayfarer” imagine themselves foot loose and fancy free, but there’s an absence at their core as they drift from town to town, free from the sense of home and belonging that comes with ties that bind.
And the album is full of songs that are prettiest at their most forlorn. “Stones” catches a guy called out by his betrayed lover, choking on his own deceit. “Somewhere North of Nashville,” is about a would-be tunesmith who couldn’t make the cut, left only “with this melody and time to kill.”
And the closing “Moonlight Motel” employs the Springsteen strategy used before in “My Father’s House” of revisiting a place of joy only to find it bereft of hope: “Boarded up and gone like an old summer song.”
Springsteen has called Western Stars “a jewel box of a record,” and it is that. And for an artist who has been spending most of his time of late looking back, it’s a heartening development: It’s Springsteen’s best collection of new songs to come out since Magic in 2007.
The excitement about a tour next year with the E Street Band is to be expected. Fans love that configuration the most. But it would be a shame if Western Stars doesn’t also get a live hearing. How about a theater tour? Is the Met available? The songs deserve to be let out of their jewel box to breathe out in the world on their own.