Bruce Springsteen could have stopped producing music over 20 years ago and would still be considered a living legend. In recent years, he’s finally come to accept his undisputed icon status, with the release of an amazingly candid biography that shed light on the life that produced the music and a Netflix special that blew everyone away. They both showcased Springsteen, older and wiser, with a writing style and stage presence of an elder statesman. Now, we have another long awaited album of original material about the American Dream, only the characters herein share the world weariness of their creator, they have aged and developed alongside him. Instead of singing about idealistic youths having their dreams scattered by Vietnam, he’s singing of the sadness and betrayal felt by aged actors and songwriters as they stare mortality in the face.
There’s not much fat on the bones of this album, no filler — each song cuts to the chase with its lyrics, all of them somehow feeling stripped down although many of them feature soaring orchestral compositions, coming together to form an album that feels very much like a complete set of short stories.
The first track, “Hitch Hikin’” gets off to a strong start, a hopeful song about a traveller with no direction home who sees some of the best of humanity on his journey, serving as the perfect intro to an album that, while pensive, always hints at some light at the end of the tunnel. Gears change pretty quickly as the next song could be seen as part two of the hitch hiker’s tale, as the protagonist jealously eyes up homeowners with a place to stay, family and food to eat, all juxtaposed perfectly to the sound of the upbeat chiming bells, piano and violin.
The first single of the album, Tucson Train sounds much like an conversation Bruce is giving to an old friend about how he prays a woman will forgive him for his past mistakes when she returns. A deeply personal track about a very human anxiety, somewhat reminiscent of Sinatra’s ‘One For My Baby’.
The standout is the title track, Western Stars, a wonderful lament about an old actor’s glory days in John Wayne pictures who now stars in budget commercials, all of which is set to great instrumentation that reaches glorious crescendo as the tale reaches a height of nostalgia, and is set against a brilliantly poignant music video.
Another highpoint is Chasin’ High Horses, a song that recalls past memories, friendships and a relationship, none of which ever led to any closure. What’s remarkable is how the wordplay and grandeur of the music, especially during the final verse, convey an overpowering loneliness and confusion, brought on by the cruel passage of time.
Track number 11, There Goes My Miracle has the distinction out of all the songs on the album for communicating the most sadness with the least words. Verse 1 inspires hope for finding love, but by the chorus, which Springsteen sings with true anguish, we discover it was not to be. Not since Tunnel of Love has Springsteen managed to so effectively capture a sense of human pining at its most painful.
The final two tracks, Hello Sunshine and Moonlight Motel perfectly bookend the album. Hello Sunshine sees Springsteen contemplating feelings of isolation and depression, seeming to conclude he finds a bittersweet solace in such things, finding himself drawn to them in a way he can’t explain. Closing with the sad, but soothing Moonlight Motel, we’re treated powerfully vivid imagery of a man mourning the loss of someone close to him, revisiting sites and reliving memories. The simple acoustic guitar accompaniment drives home the resignation to grief felt by the narrator.
All in all, it’s hard to pick a fault with this album. My only nitpick would have to be with Sleepy Joe’s Café, a lighthearted breather halfway through, not a bad song by any means, but in my opinion, feels somewhat out of place in an album so otherwise steeped in its existential sorrow. I give it a 4.5 stars out of 5. If you’re a classic Springsteen fan, this is certainly for you.