Panoramic. Poetic. Contemplative. Those are but a few descriptors that come to mind when listening to “Hello Sunshine,” the first of two tracks thus far released from Bruce Springsteen’s forthcoming new album, Western Stars. Sounding like a long-lost Jimmy Webb-Glen Campbell collaboration, it’s a masterful treatise on melancholia and depression that borrows a little from here, a little from there, and a little from Robert Frost.
You know I always liked that empty road
No place to be and miles to go
But miles to go is miles away
Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?
In addition to Glen Campbell’s work with Jimmy Webb, Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” have been cited as comparisons (if not influences) in various articles I’ve read about “Hello Sunshine,” and Burt Bacharach is sometimes mentioned, too. The song’s mid-tempo gait, subtle strings, and lyrical acumen echo the adult pop often heard on AM radio, most notably from Glen Campbell, who rode a country-pop wave to the top of the country and pop charts with a series of sophisticated songs penned by Jimmy Webb, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”
Today’s youth will never appreciate the AM-FM divide, which sprouted during the late ‘60s and bloomed in full by the early ‘70s. For those not in the know: In the U.S., the then-dominate AM band featured stations that played pop, country, soul, and/or a “Top 40” format that integrated everything into a semi-coherent whole. The stereophonic counterparts found on the FM dial, on the other hand, often focused solely on rock (and featured album tracks, to boot). The cool kids tuned away from AM to FM, and denigrated pretty much anything that hinted at being country, pop or – heaven forbid – “middle of the road.”
Which leads back to Bruce Springsteen and “Hello Sunshine”:
This thing called life isn’t always easy, and often for reasons unseen. In his memoir Born to Run, Bruce talks openly of his battles with those invisible forces: While on a cross-country trip with a buddy in the early 1980s, for instance, he found himself facing the realization that “[l]ong ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them wrongly to isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others, and contain my emotions to a damaging degree.”
“Hello Sunshine,” in that respect, seems to look back at that time in his life, and of his desire to step from the shadows and stand in the sunshine. That it borrows its motif from the adult world he undoubtedly heard on the AM radio of his youth shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are all products of our past (though not – as he once feared – prisoners of it).
“There Goes My Miracle,” the second released track, treads a similar path, though this one leads even further back, to the early and mid-‘60s via Roy Orbison. Again, he tackles an adult theme, albeit one not quite as deep as melancholia, in the stylistic terminology (aka pop) he learned as a youth: “Heartache, heartbreak/Love gives, love takes/The book of love holds its rules/Disobeyed by fools/Disobeyed by fools.”
Western Stars was written and recorded primarily in 2014 and ’15, while Bruce was also working on his memoir, and I have no doubt that the songs were informed by that process. That he held onto the recordings so long isn’t much of a surprise – first came the book tour, and then the bright lights of Broadway beckoned. Releasing the album at that point wouldn’t have been fair to the material.
In essence, both “Hello Sunshine” and “There Goes My Miracle” are a way of reaching back and paying respect to his younger self while, simultaneously, reminding himself that he’s no longer a metaphoric lonely lineman. That they echo the singing he heard in the wire, and through the whine, during his formative years is genius.