In “Western Stars,” the title song from his nineteenth studio album, Bruce Springsteen introduces us to a grizzled character actor. In his glory days, the man was a staple of cowboy pictures, back when there was still an appetite for such things; he even shared a scene with John Wayne. Now, he mostly catches checks by appearing in commercials, hawking credit cards and “that little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again.” But the unspoken tragedy of Western Stars is that nothing’s coming back to anybody; that things will never again be as they were. The shambling daredevil in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” will never walk without a hobble. The runaway in “Chasin’ Wild Horses” can never return to the home he abandoned. The country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” transmuted love into heartache and heartache into a tune, but there’s no alchemy in the world that can reverse the process and give him back what he lost. You get the sense that none of Springsteen’s weary men could join Bono in his paraphrase of the sinner’s prayer: “Reach me/ I know I’m not a hopeless case.” And they would likewise find little comfort in the haunted hymnal of Over the Rhine, who dare to hope that they’re “not too far gone” to get “undamned.” For Springsteen’s men, redemption is no longer a live option on the table. They have spent the prime of their life courting restoration; now in their twilight, they have to learn to make peace with their cavernous hollow.
The political allegory writes itself. There is a palpable sense of irrevocable loss here, the dashed dreams these characters wrestle with suggestive of the vanishing American life Springsteen’s been lamenting almost since the beginning, never feeling less like a memory and more like a mirage than it does here. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” sang Springsteen on a bleak album called Nebraska— but that was 25 years ago; and while Western Stars doesn’t sound as stark, its eschatology is just as unforgiving. Here Springsteen ends the album with a song called “Moonlight Motel,” named for what was once the site of a holy rendezvous between two young lovers. Now one of them visits the parking lot of the long boarded-up hotel by himself, drinking two shots of whisky and pouring a third one on the cold earth. Both the union and the site of its consummation are long gone, and they’re not coming back any more than the cowboy pictures, the American Dream, the middle class, the civilization we all thought would outlast us. (The burning question, same as ever: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?)
Springsteen uses a musical shorthand to underscore these songs of time and its ravages, hearkening back to an era– was it real or imagined?– when popular music could be nakedly sad, unfold at a leisurely pace, and bear the warm countenance of luxuruous string sections and acoustic instruments. Replacing the muscle and majesty of the E-Street Band with the splendorous melancholy of a string section, Springsteen has made an album quite unlike any he’s made before, one that’s equally indebted to the crisp formalism of Burt Bacharach and the lush country of Glen Campbell. He counts a few familiar names among his list of collaborators– wife and harmonist Patti Scialfa, long-time fiddle accompanist Soozie Tyrell, producer Ron Aniello– but the lyric sheet’s biggest tell is the name Jon Brion, who decorates several songs with drums and farisfas and celestes, recalling something of the gentle sparkle and easygoing opulence he’s brought to albums by Kanye West, Fiona Apple, and Brad Mehldau. The gentleness is key: Some albums are overwhelmingly disconsolate, but Springsteen’s melancholy is always warm, welcoming, and alluring; it envelopes you just like a Nick Drake record might, channelling an impressionistic vision of American vistas whose vivid Technicolor is slowly fading into washed-out pastel. In “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” Latin rhythms are ironed out into easy-listening exotica. “The Wayfarer” lilts and glides across luxuriant strings and chattering castanets. In “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the string section creates a canopy of stars, while the high-and-lonesome steel guitar of boon sideman Greg Leisz keeps it earthbound and dusty. “Sundown” revisits the symphonic pomp of Born to Run’s Phil Spector-isms– and in what may be the album’s biggest surprise of all, Springsteen convinces that he’s actually gotten better at handling those big Roy Orbison operatics.
Springsteen has spent close to 50 years mastering perspicuous metaphors for male malaise– many of them automotive!– and he’s gotten them so streamlined, so close to the bone that they just barely register as metaphors anymore. “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone,” sings the weathered narrator of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” “A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” He’s a broken man; a man being held together. Other songs employ the language of prodigal sons. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend,” says the drifter in “Hitch Hikin.’” “When I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head,” admits “The Wayfarer,” restless any time he’s not in flight. In “Tucson Train,” a heartbroken man waits at the station for his lover finally to return, years of separation giving way to possible jubilee. It’s the most brazenly hopeful song on the record, unless of course it’s really a study in self-delusion. Surely it is ominous that the song has the same premise and the same locomotive sound effects that conclude Frank Sinatra’s classic downer Watertown, where a possibly-crazy, probably-misguided fellow similarly waits for salvation coming down the rails. Both Springsteen and Sinatra allow their songs to fade to black before telling us how things turned out.
It is hard to think of many writers who capture men– their fracture and their resilience– with the same tenderness and specificity that Springsteen does. (Richard Russo?) He is clear-eyed in assessing their wretched estate, but invariably chooses affection and empathy over pity. “Guess it was something I shouldn’t have done,” understates the narrator in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the latest in a long line of Springsteen characters who went out for a ride and never came back. This is just the delicacy with which an old man might rue the mistakes of his youth: He’s candid about his regret but also careful not to make too much of it, lest his entire sense of self shatter like glass. The country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” isn’t so zen; he spends sleepless nights replaying the biggest mistakes of his life on an endless loop. “I traded you for this song,” he says into an empty room. Again you might think of a U2 line: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ First they kill their inspiration, then they sing about the grief.” And for what? “All I’ve got’s this melody and time to kill,” Springsteen sighs.
Of course, this character is no stretch for Springsteen, who’s been writing about men like this all his life. What distinguishes Western Stars is its sense of hard-earned wisdom. In “There Goes My Miracle,” a man sees his last chance at happiness walking out on him, never to return– and he’s been battered and bruised enough to call it for what it is rather than cushion the blow with florid prose. “Heartache, heartbreak/ Love gives, love takes,” goes one line, its moon-June rhymes suggesting a kind of wizened plainspeak. The narrator in “Hello Sunshine” is more enlightened still. “You know I always liked my walking shoes/ But you can get a little too fond of the blues,” he sings, the prodigal realizing that he’s wandered long enough. It’s a song about choosing hope as a matter of intention, and it resonates all the more for the many years Springsteen’s characters have stared into the abyss. Indeed, his catalog teems with young men who rant and rail, who roam far and wide looking for the missing piece, satisfaction for their hungry hearts. For the old men of Western Stars, there’s no piece to be found, no satisfaction good enough; slim odds at best for a third-act miracle or surprise salvation. If they find redemption, it’s in the peace they make with their fracture; the realization that the hunger lasts a lifetime. Maybe none of them find restoration, but at least some of them find rest.