Bruce Springsteen, “Western Stars”
Bruce Springsteen has always been something of a lineman for the county, driving the main road and searching in the sun for another overload, per songwriter Jimmy Webb’s 1968 collaboration with Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman.” Shadowy and theatrically Californian, Webb’s work was evocative, melodic, and darkly atmospheric. Musically it was cosmopolitan and hauntingly orchestrated stuff; lyrically, it told of traveling men wearied by trouble, war, and ruined romance who went looking for deeper connections.
This fantastic version of Los Angeles became AM radio fodder in its time, and that’s probably where New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen came in and made it his own.
Now, months after Springsteen on Broadway left the Great White Way, The Boss has retreated to—or lifted himself up toward—the epic orchestration and lush atmospheres of a Webb-inspired youth with his own sense of drama and melancholy (hey, he got a Tony for his troubles) on the existentialist daydream Western Stars.
Teased with a wistful first single “Hello Sunshine,” complete with yawning pedal steel guitars and softly whining strings, you can almost hear Springsteen stretching to sing as tunefully as Campbell did. Ultimately, it stops feeling like such a stretch by the time the listener gets to the Wall of Sound–backed “There Goes My Miracle,” with its tum-tum-dum beat and grand sway (to say nothing of its cribbing from Fiddler on the Roof’s “Sunrise, Sunset”). Springsteen’s true miracle is how he’s fused his Asbury Park roots with his usual rambling man esprit (found on dire epics such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad), and brought the whole family (Patti Scialfa sings) out to the Hills of Beverly.
With that, there are some schmaltzy arrangements on bassoon-filled, baroque ballads such as “The Wayfarer,” and a hurricane’s worth of windy strings on “Hitch Hikin’,” meant to conjure the moods and (not so) mean streets of California. Not as kitsch, but certainly hammy and cinematic, is “Drive Fast (The Stuntman),” featuring an unreliable narrator with “two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone / A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” If Tarantino is looking for a song to promote Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director could start here. For a while, Springsteen’s other travelogues found themselves soaked in John Ford–like references, but here The Boss is lost (or found) in the sun-dappled City of Dreams.
And truly, with a vocal sound richer and warmer—even friendlier—than it has been in the past, it appears as if the sun and the Western stars have indeed done Bruce some good.