It’s been a long trip with Bruce Springsteen, hasn’t it? For some of us who were there at the start in 1973 we can still remember buying “Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey” at Korvette’s. “Spirit in the Night” was just about the most unexpected, wonderfully mysterious thing, a little novel or short story that we couldn’t get enough of. Then “The Wild, the Innocent” cold cocked everyone with the whole second side and “Rosalita” was a fury that blew the first album away and ….
And here we are on June 14, 2019, a lifetime has passed, with “Western Stars” coming just months after Bruce’s magnificent Broadway show broke box office records and finally closed. Since the very peak of his career with “The Rising” in 2002, Bruce has released five albums of original music, all very satisfying, maybe not as iconic as the earlier releases, but all with their merits. “Magic” was my favorite and I always liked “Devil’s Arcade.”
But now we have “Western Stars,” which Bruce himself has called a jewel box, and he’s right as usual. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it. I already have favorite songs, particularly “The Wayfarer,” “Sundown,” “There Goes My Miracle” (which I wish Roy Orbison could come back for and cover), and “Stones.” The others are grade A, those are my A plus for now.
Lush and melodic, “Western Stars” is full of what we used to call singles. It’s a jukebox of hooks and catchy phases, music that will stick in your head for a long, long time. It’s obviously superior to almost everything else in rock these days.
I can’t go through all the lyrics now. But in “The Wayfarer,” we find Bruce restless as he was in 1973:
Same sad story, love and glory goin’ ’round and ’round/
Same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town/
Some find peace here on the sweet streets, the sweet streets of home/
Where kindness falls and your heart calls for a permanent place of your own
What it really reminds me of is U2’s “All That You Can Leave Behind” album, the one with “Beautiful Day.” Bruce may not even realize this. At the time Bono declared that they’d just swung for the fences and made an album with all hits and no fillers. That’s what “Western Stars” sounds like to me. (The only other record that sounded like that in the last year was Elvis Costello’s “Look Now.”)
“Western Stars” worried me before I heard it. After all, Bruce had just finished the Broadway run. And some of this recent original songs like “Working on A Dream” or “Wrecking Ball” would be sensational for anyone else but not Bruce’s top work. But “Western Stars” is really inspired. There are melodic turns, and lyrical moments that are just stunning. Just when you think things are going to sound repetitive or Bruce-like, Springsteen avoids the cliche. He was obviously inspired, and it’s thrilling.
The album does have a ‘western’ sort of Jimmy Webb-John Hartford kind of thing going on, but really in the end, it’s very Springsteen. The lyrics tie back to the era of “Spirit in the Night” in a way you won’t expect, they’re very evocative and intimate. A couple of plays and they’re in your head. Listening to “Western Stars” is like trying on the most comfortable suit you can remember.
Springsteen is going to turn 7o on September 23rd. That he’s still in the game, and on top of it, is a miracle and a treasure. Like a few others– Sting, Elton, Paul McCartney– he’s just going to keep creating regardless of radio play, streaming, and so on. Bowie would have done it. Lennon and Harrison, obviously. It’s a legacy that’s being created, and it outlast all of us.