Still born to run – preview of new Bruce Springsteen album Western Stars

Ray Darcy isn’t the king of self-doubt. That crown, in fact, rests rather more  heavily on the head of Bruce Springsteen.

The New Jersey poet of self-distrust has travelled along many long dark highways of the soul in his life time.

He is a midnight cowboy looking for home in the darkness on the edge of town, with still miles left to travel .

You can hear that search for something he never quite finds all over his 13 track, new album Western Stars, out on June 14 worldwide.

Western Stars could well be one of his greatest albums yet, not bad for a record that his critics will deride as a cowboy album. Wrong. It is indisputably one of Bruce’s most soul-wrenching long players.

It focuses more on his singing voice. And as such his words, often beautiful, seem almost to soar more than ever because they are backed in places by sweeping orchestral walls of sound – Phil Spector meets Daniel Lanois – and in other places by sparse, lonely arrangements as big and lonely as a desert on a cloudless night. 

On the emotive There Goes My Miracle, Bruce, singing like Scott Walker channelling Burt Bacharach on a night on the town in the New Jersey of his youth, asks: ‘Where’s my lucky star tonight? The streets lost in lamp light.’

And then: ‘The book of love holds its rules/Disobeyed by fools.’

Other tracks reveal a lot about a philosophical man on his inner journey.  They shine a light into the deepest recesses of Bruce’s often troubled psyche…

Moonlight Motel (‘There’s a place on a blank stretch of road where nobody travels and nobody goes’), Chasin’ Wild Horses (‘Guess it was something’ I shouldn’t have done/Guess I regret it now/Ever since I was a kid’).

Sundown (‘Sundown ain’t the kind of place you want to be on your own’), and the short but to the point Somewhere North of Nashville  (‘I came into town with a pocketful of songs/I made the rounds but I didn’t last long’).

On the sublime Hitch Hikin’ which opens the album, Bruce sings with a smile presumably on his face: ‘Family man gives me a ride/Got his pregnant Sally by his side.’

Sleepy Joe’s Cafe is a track that will turn into the first song at the second wedding of many an ageing hipster who knows great music when he hears it. It sounds like Bruce ‘in a place out on the highway, across the San Bernardino line, where the truckers and bikers gather,’ having the time of his life, dancing on a Friday night.  It sounds like Bruce at his advanced age might realise that America under Trump might not be a country for old men (less so for a Democrat like him); but that doesn’t stop Bruce enjoying himself on a track that sounds like one of the better tracks from Dylan’s Together Through Life.

Elsewhere, on Bruce’s new single Hello Sunshine – the first release from Western Stars – the bard of blue collar America is in typically reflective mood (is there any other mood for Bruce?).

‘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?

 You know I always liked my walking shoes

But you can get a little too fond of the blues

You walk too far, you walk away

Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?

You know I always loved a lonely town

Those empty streets, no one around

You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way

Hello sunshine, won’t you stay?’

Bruce’s vocals sound not unlike those found on his moody masterpiece from 1982, Nebraska.

In terms of the lack of sunshine in his head, you only have to read his 2016 memoir Born To Run to learn about Bruce’s cold, controlling father Doug, Bruce’s battle with anxiety, depression and fear, with himself.

“I couldn’t get out of bed,” writes the man whose 1984 album Born In The USA sold over 40 million copies. “Hell, I couldn’t even get a hard-on. I was uncomfortable doing anything. Everything brought waves of an agitated anxiety that I’d spend every waking minute trying to dispel.”

In fact, re-read the foreward to Born To Run and get an instant insight into the Boss’ complex vulnerability as a person and as an artist: “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By 20, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who ‘lie’ in service of the truth… artists, with a small ‘a.’”

On Western Stars (his 19th studio album and his first album since 2014’s High Hopes) Bruce is once more ‘lying’ in service of the truth, this time as a man who will be 70 years of age in September.

As Tony Parsons wrote in GQ magazine this month: “What makes Springsteen unique is that – like that other son of New Jersey the late Philip Roth – he has somehow managed to do his most interesting work in old age.”

Bruce’s record company has described the new album as inspired by his devotion to Southern California pop records of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” Springsteen said in a statement. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

In an interview with Variety in 2017, Bruce said of the influences of Western Stars, an album that has waited patiently in the wings for some time: “Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, those kinds of records. I don’t know if people will hear those influences, but that was what I had in my mind. It gave me something to hook an album around; it gave me some inspiration to write. And also, it’s a singer-songwriter record. It’s connected to my solo records writing-wise, more Tunnel of Love [1987] and Devils and Dust [2005] but it’s not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives.”

So, if Hello Sunshine, The Wayfarer and Tuscon Train are second cousins of Glen Campbell’s 1968 version of Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman or Danny O’Keefe’s 1972 Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues, other tracks from Western Stars like Somewhere North of Nashville, Chasin’ Wild Horses and Moonlight Motel are  things of affecting simplicity.

Stones has one of the greatest chorus lines of all time – ‘Those are only the lies you’ve told me.’

As I left the Lucky Duck pub on Aungier Street tonight after the special listening event by Sony Records for their prize artist’s new release, those words were in a loop in my head.

‘Those are only the lies you’ve told me… I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth.’

Bruce (in my humble opinion) at his ragged glory best. Born to stay on the run, because he knows nothing else.

Full review of Western Stars to come at the weekend

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