Let’s not beat about the bush: this is … alright.
It’s got all the elements of a Bruce Springsteen: well-worn faces and expressions, like favourite jeans; stories that are going to ring burnished bells; characters who will make listeners smile and sigh. But they don’t get beyond that; their impact is, for the most part, skin-deep.
‘Wayfarer’ is another one of The Boss’s itinerant souls, romantically adrift, but what new has Bruce got to offer us ? It’s never a good start when playing with archetypes to mention cliche in the lyrics themselves. It’s a prison that he’s kidding himself he can escape. Who is this person ? What are they called ? What specifically brought them here and what are they witnessing ? Remember when he produced ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ and exposed the crippling loneliness, the bloody brutality of the road, and the terrible circumstances escaped or run away from ? There was politics there, for sure, but there was also a sense that he was really inhabiting that person, those people, not just trying on a costume.
We get passable Hollywood and cowboy icons in ‘Drive Fast (Fall Hard)’ and ‘Western Stars’. There’s a moment in the latter where Bruce almost has my undivided attention when he delivers the unexpected line “Then I give it all up for that little blue pill/That promises to bring it all back to you again”. This is the vulnerability, the lacerating self-awareness, the clear knowledge of life disappearing that he very nearly delivers about himself in all his confessional works of the last few years, but he dodges the bullet again here, just as he could have given himself to it fully. It’s hard to stomach Bruce eulogising the old stars of the silver screen and the spaghetti western at a time when his country is being ripped apart by hatred and economic misery propagated from its political heart. It seems even more difficult to bear considering what those old times and their standard bearers represent: the colonisation of the continent, the subjugation and enslavement of all non-whites, patriarchal and conservative domination. These are all things that Bruce purports to stand against; the people oppressed and killed by them are the ones that he has so often pledged to offer up his voice for.
Sombre interlude: I can’t write this without a brief mention of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’. Not because it’s a highlight. This is the lowest point. It’s a queasy nightmare of a theme bar, soundtracked by The Mavericks’ ‘Dance The Night Away’. It’s embarrassing. So thank goodness for side two.
‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ marries a pretty enough tune with some killer pedal steel from Matt Chamberlain. This song also manages to infuse the everyday, and the relatively thin story, with enough poetry to mark it out, whether the imagery of the ‘fingernail moon’ or the bleakness of the life that helps to blot out the pain (“I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired/
Way too tired to think”).
‘Sundown’ and ‘There Goes My Miracle’ turn Bruce’s fading voice into a virtue, lending the sweet sadness of both songs credibility. When Bruce cranks it up over bridge and chorus it’s not the exhilarating hammer of old; instead it’s a desperate but true cry from the heart.
It’s on ‘Stones’ that we get the only truly outstanding moment, however. The same soundtrack-reminiscent horns as can be found elsewhere on the album introduce this track, but it stands out musically through producer Ron Aniello’s bittersweet bass, the insistent playing of the Avatar Strings, and the heart-twisting violin solo from Luis Villalobos (a beautiful counterpart to Tom Hobden’s playing on Noah and The Whale’s ‘The First Days Of Spring’). Lyrically, too, this is Bruce’s high point on ‘Western Stars’, his protagonist carrying the weight of his lies: “I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth/You said those are only the lies you’ve told me”. That simple refrain, “only the lies you’ve told me”, gives us the betrayal that gives this song heft. But it also gives us so much more: it gives us a narrator who is asking for our sympathy at the same time as conceding that he still hasn’t been truthful; it allows us to feel that doubling of betrayal, lied to and kept in the dark again. And there the images that Bruce treats us to: the lies as stones that keep coming back despite the fact that he “spit them on the ground’; the lies as a murder of “a thousand black crows” that cover the “dirt-brown winter field”. In the end, Bruce leaves us, with a sickness rising in our chests, wanting to find out more, as his narrator fills up with what he knows he is concealing, but will never reveal to us, as he feels “them gather on my tongue” afresh. If only it could all have been like this.