One thought haunts me when I hear Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Western Stars: The young protagonist who, in the beginning of the breakthrough album Born to Run, takes his car and leaves his hometown (a city of losers) has not yet reached the end of the (Thunder) Road. He has been looking for a home all his life, yet he still wanders around trying to find one.
Numerous main characters from Springsteen’s songs try to find the meaning of life. They travel the streets to pursue a kind of freedom. They drive on endless gravel roads and paved highways. The solitude and the search for truth and meaning are romanticised.
“You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.”
The scenarios of Springsteen’s nineteenth studio album feel both familiar and unfamiliar. We’re not in New Jersey or New York City, but in the southwestern United States and California. The brimming city night life and the urban cultural diversity are exchanged for the hot winds of Santa Ana, the seductive emptiness of the desert and the canyons above Los Angeles
Somewhere on the beach there’s a Sleepy Joe’s Café, where people come to life on Saturdays, to escape the workaday life that (on Monday) brings them back to dying. Trains go back and forth to Tuscon, Arizona, and a in the middle of nowhere there is a Moonlight Motel.
The album is partly weighed down by a dark and melancholic feeling, that I have trouble connecting with. Bruce Springsteen’s change of style towards soft, polished country pop is not to everyone’s taste, and certainly not mine. I would rather have seen an album with the driving rhythm of straight forward rock and/or one with acoustic folk songs.
However, Springsteen’s voice has never sounded so good and I do actually like some of the songs;
In Tucson Train, the music sounds more hopeful than desperate. The singer has left San Francisco to find a new life in Tucson. Now he is waiting for his love to arrive on the train. Although he repeats that she is getting on the train, you wonder if it isn’t just wishful thinking.
The train theme continues in Hello Sunshine. The background drum machine sets the rhythm of a moving train (the pulse of the song). It’s a song about changing your ways while there are still miles left to travel.
You know I always liked my walking shoes / But you can get a little too fond of the blues
The mood in Sleepy Joe’s Café is in stark contrast to the rest of the album. It is cheerful and seemingly influenced by Mexican folk music. Lyrically it’s also fun. It’s about an idealised oasis “‘cross the San Bernardino line”, where working people can express their concerns.
Don’t get me wrong, although I don’t like the album that much (it just does not appeal to me), Western Stars is a well produced and mixed album. The songs portray the lives and struggles of ordinary people without being political (he could have been more political). It’s also personal for example when he talks about his depression. It is a concept album and, apparently, there’s also a film to accompany it.
Western Stars (the movie), is a concert film, mostly recorded in his century-old barn, Springsteen performs all 13 songs of his latest album. Each song is introduced by Bruce’s personal narrative, often as a voiceover as various archive footage play.
The film premiered on 12 September at the Toronto International Film Festival and was very well received. It will be screened in cinemas worldwide on 25 October and I am very curious to see this film.