bruce springsteen’s cinematic highway songs

Bruce Springsteen. Photo by Danny Clinch.

There is something in the folkloric imagery of the highway that has always fascinated Bruce Springsteen, from the electric restlessness bursting out of songs from “Born to Run” and “Darkness of the Edge Town” to starker, darker snapshots from “Devils & Dust” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that blur time references but not the turbulence that sits in the pits of their very human stories.

Springsteen’s new “Western Stars” may be his ultimate road record, a sweeping travelogue that drifts far from Asbury Park and even further from the rougher badlands that inhabited perhaps his finest album, 1982’s “Nebraska.” The journey this time is different. Released three months shy of his 70th birthday, this is neither the celebratory rock ‘n’ roll of Springsteen’s E Street Band music or the brittle acoustic sideroads visited on previous solo records. This is sunshine seen through clouds, songs rich with a majestic unease that are told with little that approximates rockish familiarity and more with string and orchestral settings that color the songs with a cinematic vastness that typifies their narratives.

From the surface, what you hear is more Bacharach than “Backstreets.”

When one of the new record’s concluding tracks, “Hello Sunshine,” was released as a preview single in late April, what we sensed was a melody that breezed along with a decades-old wistfulness. What immediately came to find was Harry Nilsson’s hit 1969 version of “Everybody’s Talkin.” There is a similarity in the approach to other arrangements throughout “Western Stars” with “Sleepy Joe’s Café” standing as the only hint of an E Street throwback.

The journeying begins the second the album starts. “Thumb stuck out as I go,” Springsteen sings over light guitar and banjo as the aptly titled “Hitch Hikin’” gathers steam. Then strings roll in like passing clouds. Not storm clouds – not yet, anyway. They simply color the canvas. The lyrics introduce us to a corral of good-natured visitors – an expecting couple, a trucker and a “gearhead in a souped up ‘72” – that oblige the protagonist with a ride. The travels from there are vast but uncertain.

On “Tucson Train,” the album turns the typical Springsteen scenario of escape on its ear. Instead of bolting from a Jersey-area smalltown, what is left behind is “Frisco” and a freight train full of emotional baggage. “We fought hard over nothin’, we fought till nothin’ remained,” Springsteen sings. “I’ve carried that nothin’ for a long time.” Still, every repeat chorus carries a hope of reconciliation that ends with three words of promise, referencing both the train and who is on it – “Here she comes.”

From there, “Western Stars’ cruises through stories of regret, want and hope – things that have fueled Springsteen’s music for generations. It’s just that the spaciousness of these unexpected arrangements enhance those themes with a new luminescence, as in the luxurious title tune, the epic “There Goes My Miracle” (whose title is augmented by two simple words of doomed finality – “… walking away”) and the equally despondent romantic requiem “Stones.”

The travels close in the middle of nowhere – specifically, the quiet abandonment of “Moonlight Motel,” where the battlements of a hideaway (“She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song”) mirror a life equally forsaken. But as Springsteen all-but-whispers the lyrics over acoustic guitar and muted strings that ring like distant lightning, the story seems more eloquent than sad.

It’s the parting shot in a pack of postcards detailing a journey of time and distance. They are the conversations of a master storyteller spinning a yarn of a perhaps different color, yet you recognize the voice at once. It’s The Boss sounding as comforting and compelling as ever.

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