Buy Here | Listen Below
The story goes like this: Not long after September 11, 2001, Bruce Springsteen was sitting on a bench by the side of the road when a driver rolled down their window and shouted, “Hey Bruce! We need you!” Not long thereafter, we got The Rising, Springsteen’s semi-9/11 record, fronting a newly reunited E Street Band, about to bring his career to a second creative peak the likes of which we hadn’t seen for twenty years.
I don’t know about you, but I still need Bruce Springsteen. Today’s America is very different from the one that he’s helped us through on the rest of his 2000s output, and so we need new Springsteen to cope with the difference. I don’t think we need Wrecking Ball 2, where instead of big banks and the financial system, the enemy is cynicism in politics and the alt-right. Instead, I think we need an answer to the loneliness and meanness in this world that’s taken on new forms in the past seven years—political, digital, and cultural.
Enter…a bunch of cowboy songs with orchestral backing? Sure Bruce, whatever you say.
I was prepared to despise this record; I thought that it would ooze with cheese. I thought it would actualize one of the most common criticisms against Springsteen—that he writes songs about factories, but has never worked in one. Springsteen grew up around factories, so I’ve always given him a pass, but cowboys seemed like a bridge too far.
This fiction underneath Springsteen’s “magic trick” is the centerpiece of Springsteen on Broadway, and that show demonstrates to us that it doesn’t matter that Western Stars, or most of Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) or The River (1980) is a fiction. It’s all a productive fiction. The truth in Springsteen’s music has always been in its characters, their successes and failures, their limitations, and their desperation. Cowboys, and the West in general, have plenty of that stuff.
While it takes some digging to get to the meat in these songs, it would be a mistake to see this as a genre record. When Western Stars succeeds, it uses this setting to come to an understanding of humanity, rather than simply replicating its tropes. This doesn’t always work —the opening track “Hitch Hikin’” is mostly a description of what a hitchhiker is without much depth, despite a wonderful vocal melody, while “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” borders on banal.
The occasional piece of filler aside, Western Stars is best viewed in three phases. The first phase (the first three tracks) introduces us to the setting, for better or worse. These songs let us get accustomed to Springsteen in cowboy mode and teach us how to replace our hero’s signature electric guitars, thundering percussion, and occasional glockenspiel with a lush orchestral background. The strings bring us to a sonic and even rhythmic place that Springsteen hasn’t brought us to before, a change of pace that gets us in the headspace for the rest of the record.
The album’s second phase kicks off with the title track, a melancholy tune about a western movie star coming to terms with his knowledge of how different he is from the common person that he supposedly represents (sound familiar?). It’s a dark piece, beautifully sung, with twinges of mental illness, that sets the table for a series of character pieces that form the bulk of the record.
Some of these songs are stronger than others. One highlight is “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the longest song on the record, which allows the strings to take the place of lyrics and find some existential meaning that the narrator doesn’t seem prepared to express. There’s also “Somewhere North of Nashville,” an intimate, shorter song, that features the magnificent lyric “I lie awake in the middle of the night / making a list of things that I didn’t do right / with you at the top of a long page filled / somewhere north of Nashville.”
Still, it feels like we’re dealing with a collection of loose ends until we get to our final phase, a suite of three songs that brings the character pieces into focus. “There Goes My Miracle” uses the grandiosity of the strings and upward direction of the vocal line to narrowly dodge glorifying hardship and instead bring it into “facts of life” territory—the life itself, meaning having one, is the thing that is ennobled. Hardship is simply part of it.
With “Hello Sunshine,” trouble moves internal. With a little-engine-that-could drumbeat puttering in the background, we’re no longer blaming our melancholy on sleepy towns, economic circumstance, and lost love. Springsteen guides us toward understanding that hardship and coping are often part of each other: “If you fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.” We’re complicit in our own entrapment, even if (or maybe especially if) we think it’s inescapable.
Lonely gets a physical form in “Moonlight Motel,” a moving finale that gives our narrator a refuge in the form of an old motel, which eventually closes down, giving him nowhere to fall in love with lonely. The way we cope eventually becomes untenable, and that’s where the real danger is. Western Stars shows us that this moment of recognition is where real clarity comes in—it’s not asking us to transcend difficulty, but to track the ways we think about it.
If you only want the bombast of the E Street Band, or even the darkness of Nebraska (1982), it’s not quite here on this record. Western Stars is in its own league; not better or worse than the rest of the catalogue, simply a different approach to the same questions that Springsteen (and his fans) has been asking for almost fifty years: Who are we? What troubles us? Is that our fault? How do we get out? His maturity as an artist and newfound thematic setting gives us a more complicated answer than we’ve gotten before. In 2019, when alienation is the name of the game, this is what we need.
Notable Tracks: "Chasin’ Wild Horses" | “Moonlight Motel” | "Somewhere North of Nashville" | “Western Stars”