Skip around the last several records Bruce Springsteen has released, and even most of the albums he’s made in his career, and you’ll find little that sounds quite like “Hello Sunshine,” the debut single from his upcoming nineteenth studio effort Western Stars. The last half of Springsteen’s previous record—2014’s variegated High Hopes—is peppered with orchestral ballads like this one, but those songs all push toward cinemascope musical climaxes or weighty lyrical conclusions. With “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen offers a simple love song, aimed at universal truths, not short-story specifics. Rather than muscular and anthemic, the strings are reactive and lyrical.
Especially during the song’s gorgeous wordless bridge, “Hello Sunshine”’s florid arrangement recalls a variety of well-oiled and expensive pop-country records made in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, in either California or Tennessee. Springsteen has expressed affection in recent interviews for the music of hitmakers of the time like “Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, [and] Burt Bacharach.” (Two of those are nearly the same thing: Jimmy Webb, before he was a marginally successful solo artist, made his name by writing several of Campbell’s biggest hits.) Campbell and his ilk were disparaged by young rock fans at the time, who felt like the music extended the overcooked crooner ethos of their parents’ generation; hits like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” helped furnish an early definition for the term “adult contemporary.” It’s interesting that Bruce Springsteen, whose music has embodied ideas about unadorned, essentialist rock’n’roll for nearly half a century, would find inspiration in an aesthetic that was decidedly uncool in his youth.
Fortunately, “Hello Sunshine” doesn’t feel like passing cosplay. This is still Springsteen-patented Americana, both achingly familiar and a world unto itself. It also features one of his sweetest vocal performances since 1987’s Tunnel of Love, an album which also found Springsteen employing some sumptuous production tricks and singing more like singers whose work he had absorbed in his youth, from Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash to Frank Sinatra. As on Tunnel, gestures from country music provide tasteful shading on “Hello Sunshine,” personalized to fit the context rather than overzealously slotted in. A bass line that sits between two-step and bossa nova provides the song’s main support, and steel guitar accents surge up in the spaces between vocal lines, forming a gently unstable, misty blend with the orchestra. The song’s simple chords, strophic form, and lilting vocal embellishments sometimes recall George Jones and Merle Haggard at their most nostalgic.
One of the most unusual aspect of “Hello Sunshine,” perhaps, is its insistent country-shuffle drumbeat, which feels more like a narrative device than inherent to the song’s feel or rhythm, which otherwise moves at the glacial pace of a ballad. More than a groove, the militaristic snare figure offers a musical evocation of “rambling”—the cadence of hooves, or truck wheels on unpaved highway. For nearly a century, music that sounds like this has been preoccupied with rambling: stories about leaving the city, getting out on the road, and inevitably abandoning someone, no matter how good the times you had together were. It’s here in “Hello Sunshine,” too, but only in memory: the narrator recalls his past wanderlust fondly, and begs his lover—or maybe just some hopeful feeling—to stick around for a while. “You know I always liked that empty road / No place to be and miles to go / But miles to go is miles away / Hello sunshine, won’t you stay,” Springsteen sings in the deceptively brilliant final verse.
In the wake of Springsteen on Broadway and Bruce’s late-career reinvention as a self-reflective soloist, “Hello Sunshine” is a fitting follow-up: a song about situating the past in your mind, and figuring out how it might shape your future.