Perhaps the most enduring cultural reference point of the last 70 years is the American Dream. That belief that being born in the United States of America is the greatest gift ever bestowed upon a human being. Having the opportunities to wander a vast land of milk and honey. The chance to be exactly who you want to be, for every dream to come true. An image and belief strengthened by American popular culture, and in particular the Hollywood technicolor widescreen image as seen in films starring stars like John Wayne.
The reality, however, is often very different. A country divided by it’s diversity. A country that, under the shiny veneer, has pockets of great poverty, hatred, racism and intolerance. A country where the American dream is just that; an unobtainable wish that, no matter how hard one works, will never be achievable. The American Dream is, for many, a lie, a deliberate tool by which to control the masses, the empty rhetoric of making America great again. Not everybody can be John Wayne, riding off into the sunset after saving good American people from the bandits. Not everyone can be Robert Mitchum single handedly ridding the world of Nazi’s. For many people the American Dream is just something they see on a big silver screen.
A good few years ago I found a book called Rivethead, written by a General Motors Truck Plant worker called Ben Hamper. A plaid shirt, baseball cap wearing blue collar worker struggling to make his way in life assembling vehicles whilst holding down that job despite a reliance on drinks and drugs to get through the mundane and mind numbing shifts, just to put something on the family table. Through out the book the author made reference to the singer and songwriter who best understood that struggle. The man who put into words and song the reality of being a hard working, hard drinking punk in industrial USA. The songwriter who understood that the American Dream was, for many, a never ending nightmare from which the only escape was oblivious disregard for the real world. And that performer, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss.
Over the years Springsteen has written those songs that have sound tracked America from the early seventies to the present day; the USA of Vietnam, Reagan, Neo-Liberal conservatism, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the present day of Trump’s presidency. The Boss is a songwriter who tells the truth. Brutally so. And in doing so, gives a voice to blue collar America; one that doesn’t pander to accepted wisdom but instead challenges it and offers a different point of view.
Western Stars, Springsteen’s nineteenth studio album, takes a different route. Perhaps because of Bruce’s maturity, he after all he reaches the grand old age of 70 this year, an age many would have been retired at, this album takes a more reflective route. The themes he examines are ones of aging, of looking back at a live lived. Both from his own perspective and that of the characters he introduces to us; in Drive Fast we meet a Hollywood stuntman, battered, pinned and broken by his chosen profession. A character beaten by his quest to live the American Dream. Springsteen hasn’t lost any of the righteous anger, but he is putting it out there in a new way. More world weary, more knowing. Without the optimism of angry youth. Like his protagonist in Drive Fast he knows he can’t muster the same enthusiasm’s of 40 years ago, but that he can still ‘walk home’. He ain’t giving up, that’s for sure, he’s just cutting his cloth accordingly.
It would be a mistake to assume that Western Stars is a damping of Springsteen’s fire, far from it. This is an album that carries on the tradition of telling the true story of America. This is a modern telling of Dustbowl USA; it is in homage to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar. It is atmospheric and as gloriously expansive as those old technicolor movies of old. But where those John Wayne films perpetrate an idealised view, Western Stars holds a mirror of reality up to the American Dream. This is Springsteen at his very best whilst still having the skill and balls to challenge the listener with what will be his great country album.