- 14 Jun 19
Out There Running Just To Be On The Run
The mythology of the road looms large in the American consciousness. What was the Mississippi that Huck and Tom rafted down but a road offering deliverance from the stagnancy of everyday life? John Steinbeck, a well that Springsteen has supped from more than once, saw Highway 66 as “the great western road, the mother road, the road of flight” And where did Bobby Troup advise you to “get your kicks”, to “take that California trip”? As Amos Milburn promised, “you can lose your lead, Down The Road Apiece”. As an artist, Bruce Springsteen’s raison d’être has always been the road, not just his place out on it as perhaps the greatest live performer rock n’ roll has ever produced, but as a man out to escape the shackles of the ordinary that chain the rest of us to our Sisyphean rock.
We are all born to run, but nobody gets to be wild and innocent forever. The darkness waits for us all. The tragedy is that you’re always gonna run out of road. Perhaps that is the tragedy of America itself, the frontier could not stretch out forever. “Go west, young man, go west and grow up with the country!” proclaimed Horace Greely, but what happens when you get there, and the growing up is done?
While Springsteen insists these are character songs, they are the same characters he introduced us to forty something years ago, they just came to the end of the line. The opening ‘Hitch Hikin’ finds a man still out there though, smiling freedom over an optimistic acoustic guitar and banjo and the first of the album’s glorious brass and string swells, “I’m just travelin’ up the road, maps don’t do much for me, friend” but ‘The Wayfarer’ muses on the “same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slippin’ from town to town.” He can’t count sheep when he sleeps for the “white lines in his head” cursed with an incurable dose of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever”.
The road charges a toll, love is lost, lives are damaged, the “stones in my mouth are only the lies you told me”, his miracle is walking away, a man hollers his love’s name into a canyon, to be answered only by echoes. But there’s hope too; the man who went running, looking for peace, now waits for his baby to arrive on ‘The Tucson Train’, the stuntman who tells you “don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about the scars, just drive fast”, the joyous celebration of being alive at ‘Sleep Joe’s Café’. “I always liked that open road, but miles to go is miles away, hello sunshine, won’t you stay.”
The musical touchstones of the record are the promised ones, the immortal work Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb did together. There are tremolo guitars and soaring brass - not the jumping sax that arrived when the big man joined the band, but mature, cinematic lines. ‘Chasin' Wild Horses’, which casts the titular animals as a metaphor for lost temper, borrows slightly from Magic’s ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’, for what is a volatile temper if not your deadliest foe? It employs timpani to announce strings that will move anyone who has ever known pain, sweeping you away in the reverie of a keening pedal steel coda, surely the sound that the lonesome highway makes.
Things come full circle – the acoustic guitar of the closing ‘Moonlight Motel’ echoes ‘Hitch Hikin’ but the life of “kids and bills and the ringing of the bell” has caught up with the happy wanderer, the old place of memory is “boarded up and gone” but he drinks to it anyway, one last time.
File this heartbreaking yet life-affirmingly beautiful record - both elegiac and warm, a trick few others, if any, could pull off - beside Tunnel Of Love and The Ghost Of Tom Joad. It claims its place on the shelf as the essential next chapter in the real Springsteen autobiography.