Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen – Rating 4.5 Stars

“Thumb stuck out as I go
I’m just travellin’ up the road
Maps don’t do much for me, friend
I follow the weather and the wind
I’m hitch hikin’ all day long
Got what I carry and my song
I’m a rolling stone just rolling on
Catch me now ’cause
Tomorrow I’ll be gone”

So begins Hitch Hikin’, the airy, deceptively cheerful opening track of Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars. His 19th studio album in a recording career dating back to 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., this is Springsteen’s first studio album since 2014’s uneven odds-and-ends High Hopes, and his first studio album of original material since 2012’s furious Wrecking Ball.

In an obvious way, Western Stars begins as it means to go on, telling stories of ageing men, melancholy and disconnected, lost and filled with regret, realising too late that more days are behind than there are ahead. Hitch Hikin’ is clearly a statement of intent: Well, the highway is alive tonight with Springsteen characters, each drifting unhappily through their twilight years in California country, headed way out west, if indeed they’re headed anywhere at all.

The second track, The Wayfarer, reinforces that motif: as the protagonist tells us knowingly it’s the “same old cliché, a wanderer on his way / Slippin’ from town to town.”

It’s on this song the sweeping, cinematic orchestration really kicks off, and the influences of the likes of Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach become apparent. On first listen, it sounds as though the hitch hiker from the previous track has caught a ride to Galveston.

The narrator of the gorgeous Tucson Train tells us he left San Francisco because he got “so down and out” and “tired of the pills and the rain” that he headed to Arizona, to a new life of hard work to “burn out the pain”.

He left behind his love, though, and he regrets that they “fought hard over nothing / We fought till nothing remained”, but now, he says, with a certain trepidation in his voice, “My baby’s coming in on the Tucson Train”.

Tucson Train is an early-listen stand-out, likely to last the test of time alongside Hello Sunshine as Springsteen classics.

Sleepy Joe’s Café is a bit of fun, a little oasis in the middle of all the aged masculine misery, a Tex-Mex Mary’s Place, a small sorbet of happiness before we get back to old men feeling sorry for themselves. Small wonder the critics hated it.

Some didn’t like There Goes My Miracle, either, and it’s true that it does sound like it’s been in a drawer since 2008’s unloved Working on a Dream, but even if it’s a little overdone, it’s a song of lyrical simplicity and soaring melody, which – admittedly – won’t work for everyone.

Hello Sunshine was released in April as the first single from Western Stars, and it’s a thing of great beauty.

When I heard it first, I thought of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, with an air of Harry Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’, and a hint of Gordon Lightfoot. Others were reminded of Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues, a 1973 hit for my namesake Danny O’Keefe.

Thematically not unlike George Harrison’s Beware of Darkness, Hello Sunshine sees Springsteen embrace hope, as he counsels against the addictive attraction of melancholy; a very obvious autobiographical touch from a man who has fought the black dog all his life, and who has in recent years tried to take the stigma out of depression.

Politically, this album is a ramble through Trump country, even if the 45th president remains the unmentioned racist orange self-confessed serial sex-offending elephant in the room.

At first glance that omission seems odd, especially following the rage of 2012’s Wrecking Ball, but perhaps Springsteen is holding fire till the forthcoming E Street Band album.

The title track, Western Stars, features a faded western star who remembers “Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was toward the end”, and now he lives off his long-ago glory days, nursing a hangover and eyeing up his next conquest while shooting an advert for Viagra.

The protagonist of Drive Fast / The Stuntman is a man whose love of his job has left him with a broken body.

The regret at ill-tempered mistakes informs Chasin’ Wild Horses, and Stones wallows in the aftermath of a relationship betrayed. Sundown aches with melancholy and soars with Jimmy Webb echoes and strings.

The narrator of Somewhere North of Nashville sold his soul, and his love, for one song. Now his dreams have died, he obsesses on the life he betrayed.

The album ends with Moonlight Motel, as an older man recalls his youthful motel trysts and laments how “bills and kids and kids and bills” took the romance from his romance and he reassures himself, uncertainly, in the ruins of the Moonlight Motel, that “it’s better to have loved, yeah, it’s better to have loved”.

Yes, this is Springsteen the storyteller, and not Springsteen the confessor, and of course none of this is autobiographical, not after his superb and often painfully honest autobiography Born To Run, and certainly not so soon after his recent $113 million-grossing 236 two-hour shows on Broadway.

And yet. And yet.

Every act of storytelling starts with an act of sympathetic imagination, and it’s hard not to see Springsteen – an artist still at his creative peak even after seven years of writer’s block – imagining himself in the role of washed-up has-been.

There’s another autobiographical interpretation to all of this, of course, and it made me laugh when I listened first to the opening track (in which the narrator meets first a reflective family man, then a trucker with the open highway before him, and then a hothead in a souped-up ’72 – the year the Boss got his first record contract – the Three Ages of Springsteen).

This is Springsteen the troubadour, the commentator, the professional musician. The music takes him where it takes him, and it leaves him at once disconnected from his audience, whilst simultaneously connected to it symbiotically.

He describes perfectly for us our loneliness, and for that he stays ever a step removed. And here he is now, 69 years-old, successful and rich beyond even his younger self’s ambitions, and ever a step removed.

A few years ago, when Padraig Flynn was hauled up in front of the Mahon Tribunal, possessed suddenly of a head of white hair, RTÉ’s Fergal Keane suggested, gently, that Pee had previously been “fighting the grey”.

The Boss has – partially at least – stopped fighting the grey now, and the effect is a little unsettling. Beneath a receding line of black hair afloat over white temples, that granite face betrays some apparent signs of long-rumoured intervention.

He’s still fit as a fiddle, but even if he now looks like a man approaching 60, he seems to have stopped pretending he isn’t a man approaching 70.

An elegiac feeling runs through Western Stars, a sense that even if the end isn’t yet near, perhaps the idea of it is in sight.

That said, if one thing unites every character, every scenario, every song, it’s a yearning, a longing for a second chance, a wish to undo life-destroying mis-steps.

And yet, and yet.

The orchestration threatens to overwhelm at times, but this is still Springsteen at his finest. Melancholy is leavened by hope, even if hope is hopeless.

More days are behind than there are ahead.

This is a great album, but it’s not his finest.

With all due respect to Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run and The River, Western Stars suggests that perhaps the best Bruce Springsteen record is still ahead.

Out of five, four-and-a-half (Western) Stars.