Three months shy of his seventieth birthday, no one would chastise Bruce Springsteen for hanging up his guitar strap. Especially following the monumental Springsteen on Broadway run, it would seem the man who strummed his first formative chords with the New Jersey band Steel Mill fifty years ago this year had reached a point where he could reasonably crimp an airtight cap onto the frothy bottle of his career. Or maybe he could take a little bit of a break, survey his recent accomplishments, and determine where he could possibly go next. Instead, Springsteen has released Western Stars, his first full-length studio album of new material in five years.
Described by Springsteen as “influenced by Southern California pop music of the seventies,” it almost seems as though Western Stars is an album meant to help fill in a particular gap in his own biography through music. The memoir Born to Run keeps circling back to California. It was a promised land sought by Springsteen’s father. It was an imperfect early testing ground for Springsteen’s aspirations of music stardom beyond the Jersey Shore. It was the place Springsteen settled with his wife, Patti Scialfa, seeking solace from the demons of depression and other emotional turmoil that defined him more than he cared to admit. When Springsteen used his book as framework for the Broadway show, mingling reminiscence with reflective songwriting, it’s not hard to imagine him coming to the realization that there was a gap in his discography. The Golden State was unaccounted for.
The tone is set from the jump, Springsteen evoking a Woody Guthrie ease and simplicity on “Hitch Hikin’.” A gentle melody joins in, but the song is dominated by acoustic plunks and Springsteen’s keening voice. The vagabond has arrived to recount his travels, glories, and rueful disappointments. Springsteen describes these as character-driven songs, and it’s been folly to ascribe too much autobiography to Springsteen’s songwriting since at least the early nineteen-nineties, when he seemed to realize that his wealth and fame had carried him too far from the earthy territory of his preferred storytelling, that he could only go so much further as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Even so, much of Western Stars feels like Springsteen imagining who he might have been had he joined his father on the move west or otherwise settled near the Pacific earlier.
That sense of the personal prominent, the material on Western Stars is among the best Springsteen had crafted in some time. A borrowed Laurel Canyon gentleness inspires Springsteen to temper his usual bombast. The album is not as stark as The Ghost of Tom Joad or Nebraska. Instead, it is a cousin to Tunnel of Love, the wringing anguish imposed by a marriage falling apart replaced by a proving of the self and a resulting playfulness. “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” could even be a companion to “Old Joe’s Place,” the jaunty number from Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. I don’t mean to imply that Springsteen skirts parody (he is susceptible to that flaw). Instead, like the marvelous Guest film, Springsteen somehow makes pastiche into the genuine, mostly through earnest commitment to honoring his inspirations.
Elsewhere on the album, “Tucson Train” makes for a highly respectable addition to the long, long, long line of train songs in the American musical story, and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” is gentle, smart, and detailed in recounting the wounds and tenacity found in the practitioners of the Hollywood occupation named in parentheses. “Sundown” is prime example of Springsteen indulging his penchant for the epic, keeping it nicely contained. Album closer “Moonlight Motel” is properly elegiac (“Pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag/ Poured one for me and for you as well/ And it was one more shot poured out in the parking lot/ To the Moonlight Motel”), a repository of dreams that might not be fully shattered, but are definitely sporting heavy distress.
In my teens, I was devoted to Springsteen like few other artists, fully subscribing to Rolling Stone‘s ratification of him as a performer practically unparalleled. Not long ago, I was ready to declare him basically a figure of the past, a creator whose grasp of his old tools had grown shaky. Western Stars doesn’t exactly elbow its way into the pantheon of Springsteen’s finest albums, but it is strong, sometimes even vital. After all this time, this tramp can still run.