Western Stars (Sony)
The song opens at dusk or dawn, it doesn’t matter, a man “searching for my love” with the resignation of one who knows she’s not going to be found. The chorus reaches up even as the strings pull down the sky, the backing voices arrive like a mildly scolding chorus of great aunts whispering “look what you’ve done”, and the snare drum is a clap of hands saying snap out of it - as if it can pull against the tide of the timpani and violins and loss.
It’s There Goes My Miracle, but really it’s Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, hey that’s him, and he wants you only … to stop for a minute and just feel.
After the shock (and let’s be honest, for a certain strand of his fans, disappointment) of finding a Bruce Springsteen solo album is not a raw, home demo-ish set of tough ballads and gentle destructions, the realisation that Western Stars is a string-laden, story-rich, capital R romantic, and quite gentle record set in the semi-mythic southwest of the USA, makes sense.
Makes sense in part because Springsteen, the lover of Orbison’s tremulous melodramas, the investigator of the border country’s lives, the imbiber of American myths (its lies, its facts, and its compromised truths), and a man who has read both Cormac McCarthy and Zane Grey, is in his element here.
It makes sense too because you can draw a line back – tonally, but thankfully not in production sound – to his superb solo albums of the mid-80s: those intense, personal records which broke down the language, the understandings, and the misreadings, of human behaviour.
On Western Stars, characters include the types who are hitching under skies that don’t end, restlessly going from town to town – not necessarily unhappy but not really fixed to any point in their own lives, let alone the world.
These people might take a stranger for a spin around the dancefloor on a Saturday night to an accordion-and-piano Tex-Mex band, Monday a long way away, but some of them are back in the cheap motel that once was filled with the passion of an afternoon’s escape yet now is as blank as “the stretch of road where nobody travels and nobody goes”, its soundtrack a roll of tom toms and distant acoustic guitar.
Or there’s one drinking in a working town a long, long way from where he’d rather be, watching he “lovers passing time” and telling himself his lover will join him once summer’s through. Telling himself this over and over because “that little voice in my head’s all that keeps me from sinking down”.
There could be pedal steel at any of these points, but also the strain of positivism of the shuffling train rhythm; there’s an airy stillness in the title track, but also a warming wind nudging momentum like one of the great modern Springsteen tracks, Devil’s & Dust.
We know the type, we can see these men, not least because they’ve crossed our paths in various outfits and haircuts since Welcome To Asbury Park, and especially since Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Yet there’s nuances to each of them that mark them as subtly different, their hurts individual.
As for example the man chasing wild horses, who makes sure he does “work til I’m so damn tired, way too tired to think”, or the one who puts his collar to the wind but can’t spit out the stones in his mouth that he’s told are “only the lies you told me”. And for a minute it feels like nothing less than the truth.
But you’ll also find a busted-up stuntman trying to convince a lover – though really, trying to convince himself – to put aside what has been and even what might be, and just let the moment exist. Can you persuade someone that “drive fast, fall hard” is a viable philosophy? Even if the pins in your ankles and the steel rod in your leg aren’t the worst of the damage you’ve done to yourself?
Here’s another truth: it took me some time to get this album, to put it in some musical context that didn’t jar with the various Springsteens I’ve encountered in 40-odd years, or the Springsteen I expected to get this year.
It was only when the penny dropped and I could picture Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood filled with the Wrecking Crew on a hectic day in 1967. When the music played felt like neither country nor pop but an amalgam of both. When the ultra-Orbison moment seemed more aberration than indicative. When, most of all, I could imagine Glen Campbell in his pomp singing these songs.
That’s when Western Stars moved from momentary curiosity to something that feels like it will last.