The romanticism of youth doesn’t necessarily give way to regret and self-recrimination as we age, but Bruce Springsteen depicts life’s arc as just that in his CinemaScope-lensed Western Stars, which is essentially a John Ford western set in the modern age. The sonic anthology opens with a drifter on the side of a road, his thumb out in hopes of a flagging down a ride. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind,” he sings. “Got what I can carry and my song/I’m a rolling stone just rolling on.”
As “Hitch Hikin’” evolves, the album’s tone is set: Symphonic flourishes accent the songs, the bulk of which simmer with a fraught tension. “The Wayfarer,” the second cut, conjures Dion’s “The Wanderer,” the classic oldie that’s deeper and darker than, at first listen, it seems; and “Tucson Train” continues down the same thematic stretch of tracks; one has no doubt that the narrator waiting for his baby on the five-fifteen will, at some point, be hitting the road alone again. He’s compelled to move on, to escape.
The music often echoes the mainstream pop of the 1960s – everything from the cosmopolitan country sounds of Glen Campbell (think “Wichita Lineman”) to Burt Bacharach’s collaborations with Dionne Warwick, where strings and orchestral flourishes welled and jelled with the emotive melodies. Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” is another point of reference, as is “Ballad of Easy Rider” by the Byrds. (For more on the latter, see Ann Powers’ excellent review over at NPR.org.) As I wrote in this piece, I hear it as Springsteen framing adult stories via the adult sounds he heard as a youth and young man.
As the Bacharach mention infers, Western Stars is not a “country” album, per se, though it is western-themed. From the New Jersey turnpike to the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” open expanses have often played central roles in Bruce’s songs. Early on, the wide berths of land usually equated with freedom; now, not so much.
In addition to the hitch hiker, characters include an aging actor, a stuntman, a ranch hand, a failed songwriter, and other men damaged by life. They’re invisible to many, and a source of derision to others – but they ache all the same. (In Time magazine, Andrew R. Chow posits that these folks are veterans still coming to terms with their service, but I think Springsteen cast his net wider than that.)
In Springsteen’s worldview, work is an escape, too (as his unwillingness to leave a concert stage shows). In “Tucson Train,” the narrator’s a crane operator: “Hard work’ll clear your mind and body/the hard sun will burn out the pain.” Likewise, in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the narrator admits that, “I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired/way too tired to think.”
The hitch hiker surfaces again in “Somewhere North of Nashville,” a potent and powerful song despite its brevity: “I lie awake in the middle of the night/makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”
The album concludes with “Moonlight Motel,” a song that echoes the haunting “My Father’s House” from Nebraska. Instead of returning to his childhood home, however, this time he finds himself revisiting a motel where he and a lover once enjoyed carefree afternoons. Instead of mourning the un-atoned sins of his youth, he mourns a love that tumbled away like leaves in the breeze.
In short, Western Stars spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (“There but for the grace of God go I,” in other words.)
The track list: