Picture the scene – you’re cruising down the road, a sharing bag of slightly melted M&Ms scattered messily across the dashboard, a several-months-long accumulation of parking vouchers, crisp packets and at least one mouldy old cereal bowl gathered in the passenger-side footwell. And upon spotting a grizzly handsome and expensively tanned-looking man of indeterminate age coming into view stood on the verge with his thumb out – he’s wearing two jackets for some curious reason – you think to yourself, “Yeah sure, why not?” And he hops in, and you move off without taking much of a sidewards glance, and then in the most unmistakably Bruce Springsteen of freshly raked gravel voices he suddenly politely booms, “I’m just travellin’ up the road.” Tyres screech! Panic! Clean, tidy!
Such is the scene suggested by Western Stars’ opening track Hitch Hikin’. Well, some of it, anyway. Scarcely could an album by the Boss – whom you may remember from such autovehicular odysseys as Born to Run, Thunder Road and Racing in the Street – begin in a more mystique-unravelling manner than with the image of him humbly thumbing a ride at the highway’s edge, headed nowhere in particular in no especial rush. He is a rock star so synonymous with the emancipating power of the motor car that his greatest hits ought to be subject of a question in the driving theory test. After 135 million album sales he can probably afford an Uber, but suspend your disbelief a moment nonetheless and let Springsteen invite you on an adventure through his most surprising solo album since The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Even the most devout of fans would surely be forced to admit that the 69-year-old has delivered more Ford Focuses than he has Mustangs in recent years, so far as records go. Serviceable enough an excuse the likes of Wrecking Ball and Working on a Dream proved to be to get the might and righteousness of the E Street Band out on the road (as he promises they will be again in 2020, in support of a new full-band album).
“At one point during Chasin’ Wild Horses Springsteen literally shouts into a canyon”
Inspired by southern California pop music of the 1970s and artists such as Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach, Western Stars – the Boss’s first solo record since 2005’s Devils & Dust – doesn’t exactly rank among his more sporty numbers either. Its diversions into mild cheese are many, while its musical and lyrical depictions of cinematically sweeping Americana – at one point during Chasin’ Wild Horses he literally shouts into a canyon – trades more on the clichéd perception of him as a chronicler of the US of A at its widest of widescreen than as the guy who writes majestically in achingly vivid small detail about crumpled lives lived in shotgun shacks and two-horse towns.
But it’s definitely one of the Boss’s more curious, charming and easy-on-the-ear recent works. The Wayfarer blows with rich orchestral arrangements so redolent of wide-open, weather-beaten plains you can practically feel the breeze pushing back your hair. The title track contains the record’s best lyric from a down-and-out old actor who once got shot by John Wayne – “that one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks, set me up and I’ll tell it for you friend.” Sleepy Joe’s Café is an accordion-dappled polite party song harking back to the boardwalk romance of 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy). There Goes My Miracle contains as close a thing as you’ll hear to a full-throated, swooning and distinctly un-gravelly Springsteen croon.