There have been times throughout Bruce Springsteen’s career when California has called. He named a song for the state after his parents moved there in 1971, and he’d return to it, in life and writing, repeatedly, chasing his dreams like Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. Western Stars (out June 14th) is the latest visit: a lushly orchestrated set of throwback, country-tinged folk pop that, despite some resemblance to previous works like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, sounds like little else in his catalog. Frankly, its sheen is off-putting at first. But once you settle in, the set reveals some of Springsteen’s most beguiling work ever.
The sonic approach is in full bloom on “Hello Sunshine,” the first single. Draped in strings and pedal steel moan, it evokes existential late-Sixties/early-Seventies radio balladry like Glen Campbell’s version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” The sound dates back to Springsteen’s youth, and he channels it masterfully, with some of his most polished singing.
The vocals here are often revelatory, more Neil Diamond than Otis Redding or Woody Guthrie. “There Goes My Miracle” conjures the grandeur of Phil Spector-era Righteous Brothers and the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renée,” with a dash of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Sunrise, Sunset.” Meanwhile, “The Wayfarer,” — with a TV soundstage worth of strings, French horns and cooing background singers (Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell) — brings the sort of borderline-camp drama one recalls from The Engelbert Humperdinck Show.
The stories Springsteen tells here are a departure, too. Gone are the hardscrabble immigrant farmworkers and drug mules of Tom Joad. In their place is the C-list actor of the title track, whose claim to fame is having been “shot by John Wayne,” and apparently is now reduced to doing ads for boner meds (“. . . that little blue pill/That promises to bring it all back to you again”). The narrator of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” — in an echo of Springsteen’s theme song for Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler — is a fellow has-been who laments, “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone/A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” Against a backdrop of 2019 America, and sung by a man who turns 70 this fall, the music’s metaphoric thrust — tough-guy actors whose time is nearly past — is obvious.
A number of the songs here straddle the classic and the cliché, as country songs often do, though they’re not country, exactly. Taken individually, they can also seem thin. As the singer himself cops at one point, “Same old cliché, a wanderer on his way.” But framed by the album’s larger themes, they hit home, deepened by a seasoned actor’s self-awareness. Western Stars shows Springsteen pulling back the curtain on his craft in much the same way Springsteen on Broadway did. In fact, in its elliptical narratives, it might have the makings of a good musical itself.