14 June 2019
I have a strange relationship with Bruce Springsteen these days. From those heady days of hero-worship of 1977 to 1984 we’ve both come a long hard way down that little dirt track that has a sign out front sayin’ “Thunder Road”. I guess the bad seeds got sown, Sir, when the “Born In The USA” album came out and he was no longer a comparative “cult” artist that only a relatively small percentage of people in the mainstream really knew about. That album suddenly sat alongside “Thriller”, “Brothers in Arms” and the latest Phil Collins offering on the same people’s sparse record shelves. Maybe it all started to drift away a little then, down through those dead ends and two-bit bars. Not that anyone would have known, however, as I carried on seeing him live, following that dream to places as diverse as Detroit, Rotterdam and Paris. I have always stuck with him out of pure nostalgia but before I bore you all to death the point I am ponderously getting to, in classic Springsteen rambling narrative style, is that while I still habitually get everything he releases, I listen to his music only about once a year.
While old mates Steven Van Zandt and (even now and then) Southside Johnny are still keeping that mid-seventies Spectoresque, horn-driven Asbury Park flame burning on their latest albums (particularly the former, check out “Summer Of Sorcery”), Springsteen left the girls and the boardwalk behind a long time ago, save for the odd throwback like “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” in 2008. The Boss’s thing now is stripped back, bleak (ish) cowboy/old West-themed numbers, still rocking at times, but very dominated by sweeping, heavy, sonorous keyboard backing, without a horn, Bittan-esque tinkling piano or Clemons-style bullhorn saxophone within a hundred miles of earshot. It sounds like Springsteen with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. At times it can be overwhelming, but at other times it can be uplifting and provides a dramatic backdrop for his cinematic lyrics.
The man still has his innate ear for a tune and a killer turn of phrase, however, he will never lose that. He has that certain very special something that he always did that makes one sit up and listen. For that reason I find myself returning, despite my considerable misgivings about the album. To be fair to him he is making a concerted effort to produce a considerably different album, rather than doing the same old stuff. He needs credit for that, for sure. This review is four times the size of the one for "Born In The USA", for example, so there is some thought-provoking material on it. The album, from what I have read so far, is already being hailed as a work of genius by professional music journalists. I know where they are coming from and it would be easy to say the same thing, but those strings and that high voice......
Anyway, on with the show, this is what we now get in the land of hope and dreams as we still hide on the backstreets…
1. Hitch Hikin’
2. The Wayfarer
3. Tuscon Train
4. Western Train
5. Sleepy Joe’s Café
6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
7. Chasin’ Wild Horses
9. Somewhere North Of Nashville
11. There Goes My Miracle
12. Hello Sunshine
13. Moonlight Motel
Lyrically and thematically, Springsteen is channelling his inner Bernie Taupin and heading out to Tuscon trying to break in them wild Palominoes. One look at what is one of his best ever covers makes that pretty clear. The rear cover sees him in front of car in a cowboy hat and is less evocative, more obvious.
The album starts on a low-key note with the sombre, reflective "Hitch-Hikin'" which features a somewhat old-sounding, croaking vocal from Springsteen. The backing is stately - acoustic guitar and those strings. Get used to them, they're all over this album. Lyrics about "passing telegraph poles out on the road" set a familiar Springsteen theme. "The Wayfarer" is similarly gentle but appealing all the same. The strings/brass break half way through is classic fifties/sixties Western movie soundtrack fare. Springsteen even laconically sends himself up a bit as he says "it's the same old cliché, wayfarer on his way, slipping from town to town" and deconstructs his own mythology.
“Tuscon Train” has a solid rock beat and a convincing vocal but it is a bit overwhelmed by some Western movie-style orchestration in its backing. They are quite captivating, however, and I find this one is a bit of a grower. There is also a bit of piano hidden away in there. I’m quite enjoying this. Good track. I've heard it lots by now as it was available a few weeks ago. Some "proper" drums feature on it and it has an atmosphere. "Western Stars" is another pleasant track with a typical Springsteen construction, it sounds like something from "Devils And Dust" or "Tunnel Of Love" in places. All that Western imagery is present, as a Western movie actor narrates, with references to John Wayne, cowboys and riding. The character in the song was "shot by John Wayne" in a movie. It is a great song, greater the more you listen to it.
I really like the Tex-Mex-ish Mavericks-style romp of "Sleepy Joe's Café", with its decidedly Danny Federici fairground organ sound. Yes, it is the cheesiest number on the album, but I find it irresistible. The mournful "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)" is full of archetypal Springsteen imagery and characterisation. "Chasin' Wild Horses" is exactly as you would expect it to be as Springsteen lives out his cowboy fantasy. Despite its somewhat cheesy backing, it carries an appeal to it. So many of his lyrics are so descriptive. The man is a superb narrator of a story/scene. The song seems to effortlessly flow into the livelier but still down-at-heel "Sundown".
"Somewhere North Of Nashville" is a slow, acoustic number that doesn't actually make two minutes in length. "Stones" is similarly bleak-ish, a marriage break-up song, but with more orchestration. That overbearing enhancement is back again on “There Goes My Miracle”. It kicks into action with a solid, thumping rock drum backing but on this one, I find Springsteen is struggling with the vocal, trying too hard to hard to sound melodic enough to handle the strings/keyboards, or whatever it is that provides the instrumentation. It sounds a lot like some of the material on 2009’s “Working On A Dream” album, musically, lyrically and vocally. Particularly with the string “riffs”. That high voice bit at the beginning is pretty naff, I have to say. All that said, the song is infuriatingly catchy and my Wife loves it. I can’t stop singing it either.
“Hello Sunshine” has an infectious, shuffling rhythm such as was used on much of the material on disc four of the “Tracks” box set. It is a bleak song, though, with a bit of country guitar and a plaintive, sad, mournful vocal from Springsteen. Once again, it has a hook to it, as I said earlier, Springsteen never loses that, but I still have to question whether I really like it, or I think “oh it’s Bruce, I have to like it”. On reflection, I do like it anyway, so that’s another positive. The question I am left with, though, is "if this wasn't Bruce Springsteen, would I like it?".
"Moonlight Motel" is a sad narrative to end this challenging album on. There are parts of the album that are not quite to my taste, and I am not sure whether I will play it endlessly, but I certainly accept that it is a beautifully-created, mature and thoughtful piece of work. It is, for me, by far the superior piece of work to "Born In The USA", so there you are. I guess what matters is Springsteen's music is now something that makes one think and go back and listen to again. He really is a remarkable artist in that respect.