He strapped his hands ’cross the engines of suicide machines with the small-town teenage runaways in the Seventies. He swung pickaxes into the blacktop with the blue-collar highway workers in the Eighties. He’s swigged whiskey at night with the weary and grit-dusted ever since.
Bruce Springsteen seems to have told almost every tale in the grand old storybook of American mythologies, except perhaps one: a wide-eyed Californian dreamer finds the Golden State turns sour and flees back east, to some romantic speck of a town, to pine and rehabilitate. It’s the classic pop plotline of Bacharach and David’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”, and it’s a tale Springsteen taps repeatedly here, on his sumptuous, cinematic 19th album, which is nothing short of a late-period masterpiece.
Yet, beneath the John Williams-style crescendos and Pacific Palisades twinkles, Springsteen’s sublime portraiture of the American struggle – his protagonists walking with him through the ages of life as he goes – endures. “Hitch Hikin’” and “The Wayfarer” are both charmed odes to the lost and rootless. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” is jubilant Latin pop, a remake of “Glory Days” tracing a weekend in the life of the hottest desert party bar in the state. A stark, dream-like subtlety suits Springsteen best here, as on the regretful “Stones” – a husband admitting to the marital lies that choke him daily – or the final “Moonlight Motel”, in which a ruined soul haunts the car park of the shut-down motel where long-snuffed passions ran riot.
Where most rock superstars sink into trad tedium by 69, Springsteen is still crafting sophisticated paeans of depth and illumination, a rock grandmaster worthy of the accolade. A must-have for anyone who has a heart.