Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” review by Ben Herring

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The Boss is entering twilight years and, with the help of writing an autobiography and a Broadway play, he has finally begun to come to grips with the depression that’s plagued him for much of his life.  He’s had enough of the darkness and is ready to bask in the sunshine.

The beginnings of my love for the boss reads like a Springsteen song – a young man, struggling and lost, ditches town for an epic journey to find something greater.  I was 20 years old when I left school to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I began my adventure alone on March 10th, 2003, and that evening met Witt Wisebram, who became my travelling companion for the next 2,100 miles and subsequent 16 years. We quickly learned that we liked the same music, we liked the same bands, but neither of us counted the boss in those ranks.

Six weeks into our journey, we found ourselves at a hostel during a late spring snowstorm.   An old school hiker everyone called Baltimore Jack, a reference to Hungry Heart, was cooking up a spaghetti dinner for the throngs of hikers seeking shelter from the storm.  His all day cooking was fueled by a handle of   Beam and a stack of Springsteen CDs. We were rocking out to Badlands, having our lives changed by Growing Up and shedding a few tears to The River. Needless to say, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have been the soundtrack of my life ever since.

Springsteen’s new album, Western Stars, has been labeled as a departure for the boss, as he takes on the sound of string filled California pop of the late 60s and early 70s.

While the sound is certainly influenced by that time and place, the stories unfold like a revisiting of the characters who have drawn us to Springsteen’s music since we were first Blinded by the Light.

Album opener, “Hitch Hikin’” is the story of a man that’s been thumbing rides “all day long”, a true “rolling stone just rolling on.” The narrator could be Franky from Nebraska’s “Highway Patrolman” or the man from “Atlantic City” who maybe got caught on the wrong side of that line so he stuck out his thumb and never looked back.

The light breeze of “Hitch Hikin’” drifts us into “The Wayfarer.” Punchy piano chords punctuate the Boss letting us know that, “It’s the same sad story, love and glory goin round and round.”

The stories that he has been sharing all this time are our stories, that’s what draws us in time and time again. The Boss is at his best when he’s telling stories that come naturally, his great illusion of effortlessness.

The feeling of revisiting characters from the boardwalk is most prevalent on “Sundown.”

I’m twenty-five hundred miles from where I wanna be/It feels like a hundred years since you’ve been near to me/I guess what goes around, baby, comes around/Just wishing you were here with me, in Sundown.”  You are transported to tales of old, of young love gone wrong, young love that burned too hot too fast. I hear a man who had a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, and he went out for a ride and never came back.

I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth/Said those were only the lies you’ve told me”, the narrator opens with on “Stones”, another slow piano and acoustic guitar driven track rife with imagery of hot days working in the sun and dusty highways. Those lines are repeated throughout the song, echoing back to “The River”, “Is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true or is it something worse?”  Forgotten dreams left to fester now filling your mouth, choking your breath and making you fumble for words.

Over 40 years ago Springsteen declared, “Tonight I’ll be on that hill cuz I can’t stop!  I’ll be on that hill with everything that I’ve got/With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost/I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost/for wanting things that can only be found, In the Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The only place where a working class misfit making rocking soul music fits in is in the darkness, on the edge of town.  On the album’s standout track “Hello Sunshine”, Springsteen has, “Had enough of heartbreak and pain/I had a little sweet spot for the rain/For the rain and skies of grey/Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?” He’s had enough of the darkness. “You walk too far, you walk away.”

The Boss is entering his twilight years and, with the help of writing his autobiography and a Broadway show, has finally begun to come to grips with the depression that’s plagued him for much of his life.  He’s had enough of the darkness and is ready to bask in the sunshine.

Western Stars is the most natural album Springsteen could’ve released at this point in his career.  It’s filled with stories from the 3rd and 4th quarter of people’s lives. Whether the characters that Springsteen has weaved into the fabric of Western Stars are the same ones that went racing in the streets or hung around the boardwalk isn’t important.  The stories that the boss has told and will continue to tell are human stories. They are the stories that we have lived. Sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.