Western Stars places Springsteen in a series of guises that only sharpen one’s sense of the man behind them all.
Western Stars comes on the heels of a surprising few years in Boss developments. In both a memoir and a Broadway one-man show, Springsteen reckoned with both his previously unacknowledged struggle with depression and, just as crucially, his complicated feelings over the fundamental dishonesty of his entire persona. The Bruce Springsteen image, of the working-class poet eloquently lashing out at feelings of political and personal powerlessness, was not a reflection of who he was but of who he feared to be. By embodying his own nightmare vision of himself, Springsteen could ensure it never became the real him, even if the pressure of pretending resulted in its own psychological wounds.
Western Stars, finally released after being recorded back in 2014-15, sounds like an album recorded directly in the wake of these confessional works. It is a liberated record; with Springsteen having made peace with himself as an actor more than a voice of conscience, he embraces a wider canvas of storytelling perspectives. No longer restricting himself to the POV of the beleaguered bard of America’s decaying court, the Boss flits through wildly variant characters here, and in the process he achieves the greatest range of moods and attitudes that he has ever demonstrated in one offering.
Much of the album sounds downright wistful and content, a far cry from Springsteen’s usual M.O. of reckoning with romantic and economic turmoil. “Hitch Hikin’” opens the album with breezy relaxation, taking the perspective of a man who, in defiance of decades worth of crime and rampant paranoia destroying the practice of hitchhiking, still gets around this great land in the passenger seat. “Yes indeed, sir, children are a gift/Thank you kindly for the lift,” the character says affably to a pregnant couple who picks him up, and such chummy pleasantries define the song. Yet, there’s a quietly radical aspect to this sunny, carefree tune; cars in Springsteen’s lore are perhaps the sole instrument in the average person’s life to offer any semblance of freedom, with the driver’s seat and a long stretch of highway the one place where anyone can feel a moment’s peace. Of course, both financial accessibility and changing concepts of car ownership have eroded this symbolism, and in a way, Springsteen’s rustic nostalgia for the days of hitchhiking has a slyly contemporary edge to it as the artist finally lets go of one of his most potent symbols.
A similarly deceptive simplicity informs many of the album’s other laidback numbers. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” is little more than an account of a quaint backwater restaurant created when its founder came back from WWII and built it with a GI Bill loan before settling down with his sweetheart. This being a Bruce Springsteen song, one is prime for the other shoe to drop on this lovely story, for hard times to come and rip the place away or at least see it fall into decay with time. Instead, the café remains, a local haven for people to come and take a load off from a hard week and see the other regulars. It’s the American Dream in its original, humbling meaning, a story of decent, honest work rewarded with economic security. “Hello Sunshine” acknowledges, then dispels the misery that hangs over Springsteen’s work, even finding beauty in the derelict hamlets that always symbolized post-industrial rot when he sings “You know I always loved a lonely town/Those empty streets, no one around/You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.”
Lest anyone think that the Boss had gone soft, however, there’s plenty of the classic Bruce malaise on Western Stars. “Sundown,” “Stones” and “There Goes My Miracle” are dejected romances that could complement anything on Tunnel of Love, bitter and remorseful ditties that mix folky instruments and mournful orchestral accompaniment to create something akin to Springsteen’s take on torch songs. “Somewhere North of Nashville,” the album’s shortest track, is also the one that most directly addresses what the artist himself must consider his worst-scenario vision of how his career could have gone. The song follows a musician who headed off as a wannabe and ended up a never-was, his art turned into a callous joke as he still hangs around the outskirts of the industry that rejected him, too much of a failure to even go home with his tail between his legs.
Above all, Springsteen frames the album, however old-fashioned the subject matter, around the gig economy, reminding listeners that thankless, itinerant work well preceded the internet. “Chasin’ Wild Horses” is an ode to the sort of workers who are “out before sun-up/In after sundown” as they work a grueling job in which they come to feel more like the wild horses being tamed and broken than any of their peers or employers. “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” finds a thrill-seeker left shattered by a lifetime of work in a fast-living job, finally humbled by time into appreciating the slower pleasures. The title track, though, may be the most depressing of all. It concerns an aging actor who once worked alongside John Wayne but now does commercials for credit cards and Viagra. Though the man sits on his ranch at night and wistfully thinks about the cowboys and wildlife still out there on the range, fundamentally he’s just someone who pretended to be like them and now can only pretend to be what he once faked more convincingly.
As with Nebraska, the album to which this is most conceptually similar (if tonally opposite), Western Stars places Springsteen in a series of guises that only sharpen one’s sense of the man behind them all. The title track particularly digs at the insecurity that Springsteen purged with his recent confessionals, the fear that someone who always projected authenticity might not longer have the ability to keep up the charade. Without the E Street Band to project the usual sense of catharsis and vigor, Springsteen falls back on acoustic guitars and folk instrumentation to communicate these simple but revealing tales. By the same token, the album’s incorporation of orchestral arrangements by Jon Brion adds a lushness that is unique to Springsteen’s oeuvre. That split between the raw and the elaborate may well end up an outlier in the Boss’s discography as things move swiftly along to an impending full-band tour and subsequent album, but Western Stars sounds like a new chapter in a storied career, one in which Springsteen, no longer feeling pressured to play the Everyman, can embrace a wider range than ever before.