Bruce Springsteen's new studio release, "Western Stars," breaks fresh ground for the veteran rocker, who turns his back not only on the blistering sound of the E Street Band but also abandons the haunting acoustic moods pioneered on "Nebraska" and fine-tuned on later solo efforts.
After the soul-searching, confessional tone of his best-selling autobiography and sold-out Broadway show, Springsteen's "Western Stars" relies on an unfamiliar orchestral approach that somewhat masks the singer and is devoid of driving beats, sax solos and rock 'n' roll tropes.
Instead, he draws on the rich tradition of California-styled, pre-Beatles pop. There are hints of Roy Orbison's soaring vocals and Brian Wilson's pocket symphonies, but the lyrics are pure Springsteen. Beneath the glossy sheen are the taut narratives, introspection and ambiguous moments familiar to longtime listeners. His storytelling skills are as strong as ever, just presented in a different way.
He's paying homage to an era when the single reigned, and radio airtime went a long way to determining an artist's success or oblivion, but Springsteen is not looking for No.1 hits with easy hooks. "Western Stars" is understated, without over-the-top orchestration or hyperbole. Each song stands alone as a self-contained story; taken as a whole, it's a panorama of loneliness and heartbreak. The protagonists are mostly men and mostly beaten down, but there are occasional whiffs of freedom, usually tied to the joys of the open road, that most enduring of American myths.
It is no accident that the album opens with "Hitch Hikin'" and this straightforward image of a loner in perpetual motion: "Thumb stuck out as I go/I'm just travelin' up the road/Maps don't do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind." It's a recurring image dating back to the days of Woody Guthrie.
There are other fully formed characters from Springsteen's imagination: the failed country-music songwriter, his lyrics rejected at every turn; the busted-up B-movie stuntman held together by rods and pins; even a rundown hotel with an empty swimming pool with dandelions pushing up through the cracked concrete takes on a life of its own as a character in "Moonlight Motel."
But it's not all heartbreak. There are small celebrations, too, notably in "Sleepy Joe's Café," where working men and women can find solace on the dance floor when the weekend comes. It's a dreamy place where Monday morning is far, far away, and Springsteen has placed it in the context of the postwar economic boom that powered America for decades: "Joe came home in '45 and took out a G.I. loan/On a sleepy little spot an Army cook could call his own/He married May, the highway come in and they woke up to find they were sitting on top of a pretty little gold mine."
It's a nostalgic vision, yes, but those roadhouses still exist. You just have to drive a bit.