When the then-19-year-old rapper and meme-maker Lil Nas X scored a hit by sampling a banjo, pitching his voice parodically low, and singing about “wranglers on my booty,” some in the country establishment took it as an act of mockery. But most of the nation, it appears, wanted to play dress-up too. “Old Town Road” has been the Billboard No. 1 song for 10 weeks running, spurred by a meme in which workaday suburban kids suddenly zap into flannels and 10-gallon hats. The year’s most surprising smash might seem like a distinctly internet-era phenomenon, but really, Lil Nas X is partaking in one of America’s favorite pastimes: western drag.
Bruce Springsteen is basically doing the same thing on his first original-material solo album in 14 years, Western Stars. The comparison between the “Old Town Road” single art and the Springsteen album cover—iconographic images of bucking horses—is too uncanny to go unnoticed. Decades into his career, Springsteen’s all-American routine has treated locations as far-flung as New Jersey, Nebraska, and California’s Central Valley as one great heartland united in heartbreaks and hopes. The sound doesn’t quite stay the same whenever Springsteen changes locations, but the flavor of sentimentality does. Now he’s honed in on the Southwest with a super-fussed-over production approach that bears all the authenticity of Billy Crystal in City Slickers—but also with much of the emotional precision and rockerly grandeur that’s kept Springsteen beloved over decades.
Springsteen likely wouldn’t object to having his realness questioned. Recent legacy-shoring efforts such as his 2016 memoir and his Broadway one-man show (and resulting Netflix special) have made a point of exposing the magic trick that Springsteen performs again and again: play-acting with archetypes. “Standing before you is a man who’s become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something [with] which he has had absolutely no personal experience,” he said in that Netflix special. In “The Wayfarer,” off Western Stars, Springsteen sings, “Same sad story, love and glory goin’ ’round and ’round / Same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town.”
It’s indeed the same old cliché of Springsteen’s career—the “Thunder Road” charger who’s only ever at home on the open road—and Western Stars highlights the obvious link between his take on that character type and that character type’s intrinsic connection with American mythology. The opener, “Hitch Hikin,” boils the idea down to lullaby simplicity with finger-picked banjo and a lilting melody reminiscent of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” The song’s narrator is a hitchhiker, and the drivers he meets—a family man, a trucker, and a “gearhead in a souped-up ’72”—all, in fact, sound like characters from Springsteen songs. There’s a plaintive tone to the tune, but it’s ultimately a celebration. On the road, the hitchhiker is “high on top of the world.”
The feeling of freedom is given plentiful backup in the album’s overall sound, which tends toward bold, hummable progressions and orchestration inspired less by country music than by Hollywood Westerns. Various brass-laden bridges have the majesty of the Magnificent Seven theme; most of the guitars reverberate with the twang of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Springsteen often sings in his drippiest croon—why should he worry, at this point in his career, about being called a ham yet again?—except on “Somewhere North of Nashville,” where his battle-drained rasp is more campfire appropriate. He rarely revs to a fast or frenetic tempo, but many of the tracks give the sense of drifting and then blooming, evoking when an aimless road-tripper turns a corner and opens onto a great canyon vista.
These sonic elements are beautiful in the direct manner of a polished belt buckle, but they’re counterposed with a fine thread of sorrow running throughout the songs. Springsteen’s wanderers tend to be has-beens. One track wearily voices an aging actor whose greatest screen moment was a scene with John Wayne. Another tells of a Nashville songwriter who never made it big. Another sketches a stuntman whose body barely works anymore. As the mills and factory shops of the East took a toll in Springsteen’s earlier songs, here he sings about people who sacrificed love and stability in hopes of a more glamorous kind of break.
Western Stars can thus be read as a California 49er-themed retelling of the capitalism-critiquing fables he’s been known for. Yet the politics are worn more lightly than they have been previously for Springsteen. Take “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” a jaunty scene piece. He sings of the purveyor of the hopping biker bar of the title:
Came home in ’45 and took out a GI loan
On a sleepy little spot an Army cook could call his own
He married May, the highway come in and they woke up to find
They were sitting on top of a pretty little gold mine
It’s quick and earthy biography that ever-so-faintly hints that modern blue-collar America still subsists on the fumes of postwar public works and the collectivist spirit they embodied. Other songs are similarly rendered in pointed detail about glory captured and then faded, such as when the album closes with an elegy for a roadside motel that once housed giddy young lovers and now has boarded-up windows and an empty pool.
While the nouns and adjectives vary from song to song, the takeaway’s often the same. The most poignant and grandiose track here, “Sundown,” tells of being stuck in a city that “ain’t the kind of place you want to be on your own.” Over lancing violins and shaggy sleigh bells, the song’s narrator pines for someone he left behind in the name of independence. Whether he’s talking about an actual place or a phase of life—see the song title for a clue at which one it might be—doesn’t matter. To songwriters like Springsteen, the West offers a trove of old towns and roads to sing about not only because they feel remote, but also because they’re so recognizable to all.