By Patterson Hood
It’s been years since I’ve been as excited about a new Bruce Springsteen album as I am about Western Stars.
The record (out June 14) comes out almost exactly 35 years after Born in the U.S.A. catapulted Springsteen into superstardom, spinning off seven hit singles, years of sold-out shows in arenas and stadiums around the world, and sales in the tens of millions.
In the years since, he’s continued to release new albums and play amazing shows —and I’ve remained a hardcore fan. Never one to rest on the massive history he’s amassed, Springsteen has continued pushing forward. All of his albums contain moments of greatness, each one featuring at least one (sometimes several) song that stands tall amongst his classic output. He has consistently challenged himself as a songwriter — pushing outside of his comfort zone —and he is one of the few artists who can truthfully say he’s a better singer now than when he was in his youthful “prime.”
For well over a decade now there have been rumbles about a supposedly “country” Springsteen album. There were mentions here and there while he continued releasing other albums, touring the world, writing an autobiography, reissuing classic titles from the past and taking a year to do a residency on Broadway.
Now, on the brink of his 70th birthday, Bruce has released Western Stars, an absolutely gorgeous collection of excellent songs. It’s an album that pushes him into new, uncharted territories as a singer and performer, all while standing proudly alongside his classic albums of yesteryear.
The first single, “Hello Sunshine,” springs from the speakers like a by-gone Glen Campbell hit from 1969: lush strings and echoey pedal steel, Bruce’s voice sounding magnificent in its higher register. The same goes for “There Goes My Miracle,” which conjures visions of Roy Orbison with its melody and arrangement.
The title cut, “Western Stars,” stands out — even in this collection of stellar songs. It tells the story of a “has-been” actor who never quite “was” in the first place. He sits in a bar, accepting free drinks from strangers on the strength of a brief moment of glory: he was once shot by John Wayne in one of his later films.
As with all great songs, the jewels are in the details as a “lost sheep from Oklahoma sips her mojito down at the whisky bar,” eyeing the actor. The woman thinks she recognizes him from a TV commercial and there’s a promise in air, all because of the little blue pill the actor takes to be ready for what the night might bring. With a backdrop of pedal steel and strings that would do “Wichita Lineman” proud, “Western Stars” can literally put a lump in your throat in the same way that “Walk Like a Man” and “The River” did several decades ago.
Springsteen has spent his career telling stories that ring so true that most people just assume that they’re his stories. His Tony award-winning Broadway show was built partly around examining the dualities of his life: making millions of dollars as a musician while wearing his father’s work clothes, singing songs about driving the open road — some of which were written before he learned to drive. He’s the ultimate “blue collar rocker” who never worked a straight job in his life. The fact that he can tell that kind of story is a true credit to the man’s artistry and talents. After he performs, there’s not a dry eye in the house — which he also brings down with laughter.
I’ve also always admired that Springsteen never pretended to be younger than he is. Sure, the arena shows are built around a physicality that would reduce a man half his age to months of physical therapy, but, lyrically, his characters have aged along with him. The protagonist of “Western Stars” knows he’s a little long in the tooth, but he’s happy to still be in his boots. Happy to be one of the survivors.
When Bruce was 24, he grabbed the ring and never let go. “Born to Run” became an anthem for the ages and he’s been a star ever since. The protagonist in “Western Stars” never quite made it work. He had his small brush with fame sans fortune, and has been trying to hold on to that little piece of the American Dream ever since.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine Springsteen picturing an alternate universe where “Thunder Road” never quite connected; he could have easily ended up playing dive bars and thinking of a better life that passed him by. The fact that the protagonist isn’t bitter or angry is a telling detail worth noting — and just one of the many that make the song so great.
A storyteller at heart, Springsteen has been spinning narratives from the start, but every so often he’s embarked on albums that take the stories further and deeper. Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, the underrated Devils and Dust and now Western Stars all share varying degrees cinematic scope and a short story’s sense of detail.
The heroes (or perhaps anti-heroes) of “Chasing Wild Horses” and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” most certainly benefit from Bruce’s time spent fleshing out his own excellent autobiography (and the so-inspired Broadway show). Knowing which details to include and which ones to merely hint at is, in and of itself, an art at which Springsteen excels.
The arrangements are themselves noteworthy for their beauty and scope. It’s my sincere hope that he decides to play some shows with the full strings and steel — to go go out and perform the album in its entirety with, perhaps, a few carefully selected other songs that would benefit from that treatment. These songs and this album deserve no less.
“Here’s to the cowboy, riders in the whirlwind/tonight the western stars are shining bright again.”