Posts Tagged ‘Western Stars’

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:

 

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.