California contains multitudes. A 500-mile seaside trek on the coastal Route 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco takes you through affluent and working class communities, through breathtaking bluffs at Big Sur and scenic surf spots around Ventura. California is the promised land of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the dream of the Mamas and the Papas, and the starting line of the 1969 hippie chopper classic Easy Rider. The state’s rich culture and endless possibilities are sources of inspiration for the latest solo album by Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars. The Boss, rock’s reigning poet of locomotion and the open road, approaches the subject matter with the kind of zeal normally reserved for his small-town New Jersey constituency and achieves a reflective quietude that’s not possible in the bluster of his flagship E Street Band on this, his first solo album completely comprised of original songs since 2005’s Devils and Dust.
Western Stars lists the orchestral sounds of iconic American singers and songwriters like Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach as influences. You can hear Brill Building formalism and Nashville sweetness in the production, overseen by Ron Aniello, who worked on Springsteen’s last two albums, Wrecking Ball and High Hopes, and Shania Twain’s 2017 comeback Now (after a decade of shepherding wholesome pop and Christian rock acts like Guster, Lifehouse, and Jars of Clay). This isn’t Springsteen’s first crack at complementing his voice with horns and strings. 2009’s Working on a Dream piled on embellishments that aimed for the cluttered, kitchen-sink intricacy of the old Beach Boys records but turned out a batch of songs that sounded like the autumnal incidental music in a television series about moody rural teens and their feisty parents.
The new album avoids the mistakes of Working on a Dream by force of poise and rustic beauty. Where Dream songs like “This Life” came on strong out of the gate, Western Stars lets its string, piano, horn, and xylophone accompaniments sneak up on you. Opener “Hitch Hikin’” leads with the singer, an acoustic guitar, and quiet mallet notes and slowly stacks sounds on the way to a climactic final chorus, after which the players fall back, and the song fades out. “Tuscon Train” reimagines the E Street sound, with pretty horns playing the lines a lead guitar might, while the guitars lurk on the outskirts of the track, where the horns would normally go. “Chasin’ Wild Horses” and the title track build patiently from silence to gorgeous roots rock. This is Bruce Springsteen’s quietest album since We Shall Overcome, his 2006 collection of Pete Seeger covers, and it houses some of his most poignant songwriting since that era as well.
Western Stars is a collection of character songs Springsteen says were mostly written before 2012’s Wrecking Ball. The restlessness of the loners, hitchhikers, thrill seekers, and jaded movie stars populating these songs isn’t the wry commentary on the Trump era the timing of this release might’ve suggested. It’s Bruce qua Bruce, a songwriter who made a mint tracing the moves of men in desperate circumstances getting back to the task at a point in his career where he could’ve quietly put out archival live releases and classic album outtakes forever. You know the basics: A sad guy gets possessed by the age-old American wanderlust and barrels out of town on the first thing smoking. Lessons are learned. Lives are changed. But focusing on the iconography of the West allows Springsteen to access intriguing characters and histories, to sneak character studies of songwriters and stuntmen into the usual pallette of lost souls.
The Boss knows you know his tics. “The Wayfarer” pokes fun at them in verse one: “It’s the same old cliche, wanderer on his way, slipping from town to town.” It’s a ruse to prick up your ear. The rest of the lyric brilliantly captures the sensation of a mind racing at night in evocative imagery and breathless delivery: “When everyone’s asleep, and midnight bells sound, and wheels are glistening up the highway spinning ’round and ’round.” He can’t wait to get the next word out, like the wayfarer can’t wait to get to the next town. In two lines, the title track nails the numbing comfort of wealth as coolly as A Star Is Born: “On the set, the makeup girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin / And I give it all up for that little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again.” He voices these men with stately grace and grizzled pride. The message in the actor pining for his Hollywood heyday, the drifter in search of a home of his own, the songwriter who’d trade his greatest hit for a lover he lost, and the injured stuntman who misses his grueling gig is that you never stop yearning. Even if you make it big, you never stop craving more.
Elegant writing and tasteful production make Western Stars the best Springsteen album since Wrecking Ball at the least, maybe even the best since the artist’s middle-aughts resurgence. These songs are so effortless and accomplished that you wonder why High Hopes, a patchwork of leftovers and reimagined old songs, made it out first, and why a record that feels like a smarter, calmer, younger sibling to the cloying symphonies of Working on a Dream took a decade to right the course. But the muse wants what it wants. Dylan did a triple album of standards. Neil Young made a rock album filled with farm noises. Springsteen’s love letter to the California sound honors the music of his youth and the fans of his present, altering the script without alienating the audience. It examines the experience of getting older in earnest, avoiding self-parody and self-pity. Four decades and nineteen albums in, this is the best-case scenario.