The last rockin' daddy in the U.S.A.

Robert Maharry

For all intents and purposes, I’ve given up on new music in the last few years. I don’t consider it an “Old/young man yells at cloud” reaction to the trends of the day—I enjoy “Old Town Road” as much as the next guy—but does anyone within sniffing distance of the mainstream write albums anymore? Or is everything a computer-generated algorithm designed solely with streams and viral success in mind?
Okay, maybe that’s a bit more dismissive than I intended it to be, but you get the point. Rock n’ roll music—if you aren’t the Foo Fighters or a certain young band that sounds exactly like Led Zeppelin—is all but dead as a mass audience genre, and the country on the radio continues to stray farther and farther from its roots as it morphs into some unholy amalgamation of 80s hair metal, bad hip-hop and modern soft pop. Rap is the only creative frontier left, it seems, and even with the emergence of once in a generation voices like Kanye and Kendrick Lamar, its ubiquity has left a massive void in the hearts of fans who still love guitars, drums and live instruments.
All that said, who’s going to swoop in and save disaffected souls like me with the surprise masterpiece of 2019? As it turns out, it’s none other than the Boss himself.
In the last decade or so, even the legends of the golden age of popular music have by and large become boring relics. Bob Dylan lost whatever was left of his singing voice and wastes albums mumbling Sinatra covers. The Stones play the hits and play them well, but the chances we’ll ever get another new album are slim to none. Neil Young went from writing great protest music (“Ohio”) to eardrum shattering anti-GMO screeds. Tom Petty, God rest his soul, is gone, and Robert Plant is doing his Zen folk songs in small clubs routine with any plans to work with Jimmy Page again on the backburner. The legends, save for Willie Nelson, are either parodies of themselves, lounge acts or just fundamentally incapable of doing anything new.
But Bruce Springsteen, perhaps due to the fact that he never ruined himself with drugs and booze the way his contemporaries did, never rests. His latest, “Western Stars,” is a complete offering with wonderful singles, a tribute to the golden age of country pop (the best song, “Hello Sunshine,” directly recalls the shuffle beat of Glen Campbell’s version of “Gentle on My Mind”) with all of the working man bravado we’ve come to expect over the years. He’s been a jubilant boardwalk big band leader (“Born to Run”), a despondent apocalyptic prophet (“Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Nebraska”), a cool rockin’ daddy in the U.S.A. (“Born in the U.S.A.”) and a voice of resilience after one of the country’s darkest days (“The Rising”), but he’s always managed to walk the tightrope of maintaining his signature sound while constantly reinventing it.
“Western Stars” is more country than Lee Brice, Thomas Rhett and Dan+Shay, and I’m not sure if that’s an affirmation of Springsteen or a sad commentary on the current state of the genre. Perhaps both.
After the more overtly political fare in his last two albums (especially the anti-Wall Street polemic “Wrecking Ball”), he’s chosen to turn his focus to aging, offering retrospectives that feel like companion pieces to earlier tales of working class desperation in his classics—“Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Promised Land,” and “The River,” to name a few. It’s like Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae are sitting around at the Dry Bean swapping war stories if Gus had survived the Montana cattle drive. It’s a sublime ode to the characters that inhabit the new frontier and all of the struggles they’ve endured just to survive in it.
The stories are vintage Hollywood, vintage Old West and vintage Bruce: a B-movie stuntman reflects on aging in “Drive Fast,” a desperate hobo tries to find his way in “Hitch Hikin’,” and a positively jubilant string orchestra carries “Tucson Train” as if to announce that Clint Eastwood or Gary Cooper will show up any minute to rid the frontier of evil once and for all.
If Springsteen keeps it up, he may put out an experimental electro-pop opera about life on Mars when he’s 90. In lesser hands, I’d consider that some sort of sick joke, but hey, it’s the Boss. I’ll give it a chance.
“Western Stars” is not Bruce Springsteen’s best album, but for my money, it’s the best album of 2019 so far. 

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