Bruce Springsteen has been omnipresent in my life since a young age. My father’s favorite song of all time is 'Thunder Road,' and for a while when I was little, I didn’t understand the appeal. I saw him as the rock and roll dad, the man who would churn out cheese like 'Born in the USA' and make a million dollars touring. My weird and undeveloped image of Springsteen was only half right, as his tours are some of the greatest feats of live performance ever, but he’s also made my favorite song of all time. I had a breakthrough experience with him when I was at summer camp a few years back, where I was laying in a hammock and 'Thunder Road' came on shuffle. All of the anxiety, explosiveness, and excitement of that song hit me as I was staring at the sky around three in the morning. Ever since then, he’s been a god to me as I finally understood what he was.
I’ve been through every record Springsteen has put out, and it’s easy to make a statement along the lines of his last great record being 'Tunnel of Love.' It’s been a rough decade for him, as he’s made some of his worst music ever. Part of that does come with age, but there’s a sense that he’s lost what makes his roaring heartland rock so vital. Coincidentally, it’s been a great few years for him. I saw him for the first time in 2016 on The River Tour, which was an electric evening. Following that tour, Springsteen has recently concluded a Broadway show, which was his best project since the 80s. Keyword is was, as his new record 'Western Stars' is a subtle beauty, and his best record of the 2000s.
Springsteen’s voice rings loud and clear seconds into the opening track 'Hitch Hikin' where a narrative starts to be written over brisk acoustic guitar. By the time Springsteen sings “I’m riding high on top of the world” in the third verse, we find pianos, strings and chimes backing him. It’s his best set of lyrics since 'Brilliant Disguise,' taking the western iconography and refitting it, using cliches as the starting point. This record is the closest Springsteen can get to a concept album, framing a collection of tales about over the hill men set against the idea of the “wild west.” Not a full E Street Band record, nor a collection of near demos like 'Nebraska'; it’s a new, beautiful in-between.
The instrumentation backs Springsteen perfectly. It’s a muted record, especially in comparison to the recent messes like 'Wrecking Ball' and 'High Hopes', but the music is steady, almost too clean, and beautiful. Whenever the melodies or themes near being saccharine, Springsteen pulls himself away. A perfect example is a song like 'Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,' which is followed with the two-minute ditty 'Somewhere North of Nashville,' a tale of a washed-up songwriter that has a demo-like quality. The record’s beauty shines in moments like these, but even more so in it’s bigger songs. Take the huge sweeping crescendo of 'Sundown' with shimmering and textured guitars, huge strings, and the boosting pianos. When he sings about this small town and how lonely it makes him feel, it’s just as real as the pain in his heart on 'Badlands' or the location of Greasy Lake on 'Spirit in the Night.' Every time Springsteen sings a contrived line, utters a cliche, or writes about a familiar topic, he sings it with a new life, making any platitude seem fresh.
The essence of the album is boiled down into the lead single 'Hello Sunshine.' Opening with a pitter-patter of brushed snares and a calm bassline, the song is an absolute beauty. Springsteen croons over the acoustic guitars and light pianos, but the joy of the song is in the lyrics. He talks of driving far, empty roads, and lonely towns, but each verse is ended with a call of “Hello sunshine, won’t you stay.” By the time he’s humming the melody over soaring strings, all you can do is smile and enjoy the ride.
Favorite Tracks: Sundown, Hello Sunshine, There Goes My Miracle, Somewhere North of Nashville
Least Favorite Tracks: Sleepy Joe's Cafe