We probably all know the feeling of trying to fall asleep at night, but thoughts keep entering your brain. You know that you will not fall asleep until you manage to think about something else, something better. Of course, the more you try to force your brain to think about something else, the more you won’t. The more those bad thoughts keep filling your head. “If I could just turn off my brain,” as the guy in “Tucson Train” sings…
Much of the Western Stars album is about men trying to keep their thoughts at bay. They hitchhike, they roam from town to town, they work from sunrise to sunset, they sit in bars telling stories about their past glories - real or imagined - they convince themselves that everything is just fine and dandy and that the old sweetheart will return - any day now - on the inbound train.
But the truth is always lurking in the background. Sometimes you only hear it in the ominous music as in “Hitch Hikin’”, sometimes, as in “Chasin’ Wild Horses”, the protagonist knows he must work himself into oblivion to shake the truth that’s always threatening to catch up with him. And then, towards the end of the album, the truth comes staring the guy in the face, as in “Stones”, followed by the masterpiece of the album, “Hello Sunshine”, where the character is slowly getting ready to stop running and accept whatever reality he was trying to escape… and face whatever it is daylight will expose.
The character in “Hello Sunshine” welcomes the sunshine, but on the rest of the album there are a lot of sunrises and sundowns. There is even a song, the majestic “Sundown” (with one of the best musical intros in Bruce’s canon), which describes a town, or maybe it’s a state of mind, that draws you in and threatens to expose you. During the day you can hide or keep yourself busy. It’s when the sun is low, or the moon comes out, that the demons can sneak up on you.
While the theme of the album may not be entirely new for Bruce – we have seen these characters and issues before in everything from “Something In the Night” and “The Promise” (in much younger incarnations) to “Stolen Car” and “Dry Lightning” – the musical style on Western Stars is a big departure from anything we have heard from him before. The stories are often as intimate and downplayed as anything on Nebraska and Devils & Dust, but the music is grand and cinematic in its sweeping string arrangements, illustrating the big landscapes of Western US that these songs are set in. It also tells the story of men who are long past their prime, but still cling to the memories of their heydays and convince themselves that, with a bit of luck and effort, they may just return.
For those fans clamoring for some new E Street noise, Western Stars must be a disappointment. There are no pounding drums and screaming guitar solos in sight. But if you are at the stage in your life where peace and quiet are often preferable to music, the album is incredibly pleasing to the ears. Big arrangements or not, this feels like a quiet album. Nothing grinds your ears or nerves. It just sounds good and soothing. Again, I must emphasize “Hello Sunshine” in its hypnotic, quiet drive. I could listen to it all day on repeat and not grow tired of it.
The album closes with the gorgeous “Moonlight Motel”, another story about a man reminiscing a lost love and better days. But the motel that symbolized the happy times is now just an abandoned, empty shell. Much like the guy in “Cautious Man” for whom the road all of a sudden no longer holds all the answers, the man in “Moonlight Motel” has a last toast on his past and, we must assume, sets out on a new journey toward some kind of salvation.
During his Broadway stand, and in his autobiography, Bruce talked about his habit of driving by his old house in the middle of the night and how he kept looking for redemption to somehow magically appear out of the past. But like the characters in Western Stars must also realize – unless they perish first – they won’t find it there.
It’s hard not to be carried away when Bruce Springsteen releases his first album of new music in seven years, but with Western Stars he has quenched all fears that he was done as an album artist. Of course, this album is not for everyone – and bless you if this just isn’t your cup of tea – but no one can claim that Bruce is not still driven by artistic ambition, soul-searching and willingness to take risks. Add some strings and horns, and an exquisite, well-sounding production, and you have a pretty good contester for a late career classic.
The Jersey star is shining bright again.