It’s a wonder Bruce Springsteen never took up smoking in any serious way, because judging from his new album, he’s long harbored an ambition to be the Marlboro Man. And the Wichita lineman? That particular strong, silent type, too. Springsteen has cited the 1960s work of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb as being a model for what he’s done on “Western Stars,” but you should probably throw movie music in as an influence, given how much full orchestration is packed into almost every track, from a guy who didn’t ever have much use for it before. He’s written a concept album about isolationists in the modern American West, then arranged it so that all those strings and horns make you half-expect the Magnificent Seven to swoop in to rescue his forlorn loners.
There’s never been a release in Springsteen’s catalog of 19 studio outings that counts as a genre exercise quite the way this one does. So even though he’s not adhering strictly to one template, your appetite for “Western Stars” may come down to how much of your life you’ve spent in “Galveston” or clocking what hour it’ll be by the time you get to Phoenix … that is, how much predilection you have for old-school California pop about sad sacks in the desert states. That’s a pretty narrow niche of nostalgia in 2019, but it gets him well out of the rut he seemed to be getting into by the time of his last album, 2014’s merely place-marking “High Hopes.” Casual fans may even enjoy it more than his other so-called solo records, like “Devils & Dust” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The writing here isn’t as consistently strong as on those projects, but the overall feel is less dour. You could even imagine the E Street Band having its way with a few of these mid-tempo tracks if the ghost of the late, great string arranger Jimmie Haskell hadn’t gotten to them first.
The irony that Springsteen fans well know is that his more intimate solo records tend to be his least autobiographical, and so it is with “Western Stars,” where nearly every song is a character sketch about Someone Who Is Clearly Not Bruce Springsteen (except for maybe sharing the tendency toward depression he owns up to in his memoir). All but a couple bear lyrical markers that set them west of the Mississippi. “Somewhere North of Nashville,” about a failed songwriter, goes a little geographically astray, as the title indicates. Otherwise, we’re as far from the Jersey shore as we can get without running into a mood-killing refreshing ocean breeze.
There’s the Arizona crane operator waiting for his estranged California lover to arrive on a “Tucson Train”; the Montana Bureau of Land Management dude with anger management issues in “Chasin’ Wild Horses”; the fellow who parks outside a boarded-up desert motel to pour a shot of Jack out for the (probably dead) lover he used to meet there in “Moonlight Motel.” He ventures into Los Angeles once, for the title track, about an aging Gower Gulch cowboy riding out the end of his career in Viagra commercials. “I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on / Instead of empty in the whispering grasses down the 5 at Forest Lawn,” this character actor sings in what might count as one of the more cheerful verses on “Western Stars.”
Springsteen does try to provide uplift in a few songs about happy wanderers. The one number that aims to be an outright jubilee is “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe.” (Since Springsteen recorded this album long before Trump applied that sobriquet to a political rival, it is our duty to try not to imagine a diner run by Joe Biden in a chef’s apron.) This impossibly idyllic juke joint “across the San Bernardino line” sounds like nothing we’ve ever experienced in the general San Berdoo area, but then, probably nobody on the east coast has ever been to “Mary’s Place,” either, right? You don’t go to a song like that for verisimilitude about California’s Inland Empire, but the addition of an accordion, some Tex-Mex flavor and a jaunty key change certainly does make that’s less likely than any of the others on the album to be brought up on charges of sleepiness.
It’s not the only track where Springsteen is just going for generalized myth-making, though. He veers toward cliché in the opening “Hitch Hikin’,” which feels so disconnected from the modern reality of America’s open roads, he might as well be playing a railroad hobo. And if you’re repeating the line “I’m a wayfarer, baby” over and over (as he is in, naturally, “Wayfarer”), it’s a little like calling yourself a stable genius: Saying it that often might mean you aren’t one. Still, you can just about buy these happy-go-lucky odes to itinerancy when that baritone guitar joins the swelling strings and a quietly finger-picking tune suddenly opens up into CinemaScope.
“Go west, 69-year-old man” always feels like good musical self-advice on this album, and Springsteen and the spirit of Elmer Bernstein make for a good match. It helps, too, that he’s using his inside voice, so to speak… losing some of the rasp and returning to that lower range you remember from early efforts like the verses “Born to Run,” which he seemed to rediscover around the time of 2007’s brilliant and underrated “Magic.” You might hear an echo of something like that album’s solemn but pop-friendly “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” in this record’s “There Goes My Miracle,” with a quietly assured vocal tone that befits the more subtle melodic twists he’s working into the best material here.
His genius for filling in particulars returns the more he gets to characters who know they’re stuck — the then-and-now Springsteen specialty. By the time he gets to that L.A.-set title track, he’s remembered his talent for lived-in particulars: “Here in the canyons above Sunset, the desert don’t give up the fight / A coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ’cross my veranda in the night.” In “Drive Fast (The Stuntman),” we get the Springsteen who knows how to turn a phrase in a declaration of bravado as simple but telling as “I liked the pedal and I didn’t mind the wall.” “Moonlight Motel” sounds like a kitsch title, but its take on memory and loss is a legit heartbreaker, even if you don’t have a wistful thing for the Americana of abandoned motor courts.
He’s a tourist in this landscape, in all kinds of ways — but who was the sage who said, “I know I need a small vacation”? Springsteen has taken one out West, and he seems rejuvenated for it, even with the melancholy detours. If he brings a bit of New Mexico back to New Jersey, that E Street album he’s promised for 2020 will probably be all the better for it.