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Bruce Springsteen Finds A New Sound By Looking To The Past

In the early 1970s, the singer-songwriter Danny O'Keefe had a "very mellow, beautiful friend," as he told Rolling Stone magazine, who'd lived too hard and was paying the consequences. Heart attacks and pain pills burdened the guy's life, and O'Keefe, himself rolling into his thirties, identified. O'Keefe told his friend's story in the ballad "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" – one of the loveliest, most soothing accounts of creeping oblivion popular music has produced. It was a hit for the Washington state-born singer-songwriter and remains a favorite for others to cover, from Elvis and Waylon Jennings to Dwight Yoakam.

"Hello Sunshine," the new song from Bruce Springsteen's upcoming album Western Stars (to be released June 14) dwells within the same uneasy drift. It begins with a sharp snare drum fill interacting with the sleepy undertow of a fifth interval on the bass – the sonic equivalent of a speedball. Springsteen intones: "Had enough of heartbreak and pain, had a little sweet spot for the rain." Up close to the mic, his voice conveys its usual depth and scope, but a smudge of weariness, too. As the arrangement grows more complex, rich with strings and pedal steel guitar, the lyrics stay simple. "You know I always love the lonely towns, those empty streets no one around," Springsteen continues. Then, in a line that might remind you of Willie Nelson: "You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way."

The song reaches tentatively toward optimism with its orchestral swell and its title line, which warily welcomes the sunshine that dispels the grey mood of the rest of the song. But this ballad lives within the same melancholy space as O'Keefe's does, alongside others by the likes of Jimmy Webb, John Hartford and Kris Kristofferson. Springsteen has talked about being inspired by these songwriters who captured the pensive mood of the early 1970s, especially around and above L.A.'s Sunset Strip, where the counterculture and the pop biz had collided in ways that were deeply fruitful, producing songs that were both easy to listen to and emotionally complex. There's also a Nashvillian cool to producer Ron Aniello's arrangement that bodes well for fans who recognize, in Springsteen's mature voice, a kinship with great country philosophers like Nelson and Charlie Rich.

The song titles Springsteen has shared from Western Starssuggest that the album will travel the heart-worn highway from Music City to Laurel Canyon: "Somewhere North of Nashville," "Tucson Train," "Moonlight Motel." This song makes it clear that along with some possible high desert cowboy songs – there's a horse on the album cover, after all – Springsteen will provide listeners with plenty of explorations of life behind closed doors during uncertain times. It's interesting, though not unprecedented, for the Boss to be exploring the adult-contemporary sonic palette and worldview that his own mid-1970s albums, raucous and raggedy, rebelled against. Calling this a solo album, though he made it with many collaborators including his longtime producer Ron Aniello, original E Street Band keyboard player David Sancious, and the multi-instrumentalist and genius song-shaper Jon Brion, Springsteen is drawing connections between this new music and earlier inner journeys like Tunnel of Love and Working on a Dream. It's hard to know if "Hello Sunshine" reflects the dominant mood of Western Stars or will prove to be an outlier, but its contemplative tone seems like a natural extension of Springsteen's memoiristic Broadway show – and a good place for a man who's expert in confronting the blues to dwell.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.