Bruce Springsteen has spent the past few years reminding observers why he’s called the Boss — writing an autobiography, playing the longest shows of his marathon-studded career, selling out a run on Broadway. Now that the footlights have dimmed, he’s back to releasing music, and his 19th album is a gorgeous love letter to the idea of songs providing salvation, a credo that has animated his four-decade-plus recording career.
Western Stars, Springsteen’s first full album of originals since 2012, opens with the 69-year-old’s weathered burr — still one of American music’s most singular instruments, but a bit gnarled by time — paired with a fingerpicked guitar, singing of hitting the road with nothing but his songs and his dreams. The song, “Hitch Hikin’,” is a slow-burner, its gradually swelling orchestration adding gravitas to the images the narrator collects during his travels — telephone poles and trees, dashboard photos, the illusion of constant movement. It’s dreamy in a way that recalls passenger-side views on late-night drives, beckoning the listener to come along for the rest of the ride.
Springsteen has said Western Stars is his homage to the pop music that flowed from Southern California in the late ’60s/early ’70s. The lush arrangements of songs like the heart-eyed “Tuscon Train” and the brokenhearted, string-laden “There Goes My Miracle” certainly recall the era of Bacharach and Webb. The coda of “Stones” gives his stoic vocals an emotional counterpoint by way of a twisty, insistent violin solo.
Stars‘ storytelling is also peppered with the hope-filled characters that the New Jersey native has drawn over his career: The central figure of the boot-scooting “Sleepy Joe’s Café” “came home in ’45 and took out a GI loan/On a sleepy little spot an Army cook could call his own”; the eponymous narrator of the simmering “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” “was looking for anything, any kind of drug to lift me up off this ground” and found love on a B-movie set; the drifter of “Hello Sunshine” looks for redemption on barren streets.
Placing intricately detailed portraiture on massive musical backdrops has been a Springsteen trademark for years, of course, and Western Stars continues this legacy, transforming the enormous into the intimate. That’s the sort of magic Springsteen specializes in conjuring — and he clearly has little interest in slowing down his ride. A-