“This is where the country opens up and things get a little weird,” Bruce Springsteen writes in his memoir about a pivotal road trip out west. It was the early ’80s and he was learning, for the first time, how to cope with depression in a real way. “As Sisyphus can count on the rock,” he writes. “I can always count on the road, the music, and the miles for whatever ails me.” Here is the implicit promise of his music, presented with all the burdens and hard consequences attached. Remember: the door is open but the ride ain’t free.
His gorgeous new song “Hello Sunshine” takes place somewhere on the journey. Its friendly, country arrangement sits within a long lineage of radio classics: “Everybody’s Talkin,’” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” all songs borne from quiet barrooms in the early hours of the morning. As if to prove his place among them, Springsteen spends an entire verse humming along, strings guiding the way like light from a jukebox. Amid the glow, he’s surrounded by pedal steel raining on the windows, a hushed honky-tonk piano in the corner, a brush-stroked rhythm section that feels like running in place on a soft dirt road. Bold but lived-in, it’s the most vivid his music has sounded in at least two decades.
The words are sparse but important. The road is “empty” not “open.” Sunshine is a passing stranger not an absent friend. “You walk too far, you walk away,” he cautions in a low, weathered croon. As the first single from an album that’s been sidelined for the better part of the decade—first for an Obama-era protest statement, later for a jubilant if backward-looking E Street Band tour, and most recently for a one-man Broadway show that turned the span of his songbook into a seemingly complete narrative with a (mostly) happy ending—its pulse feels particularly inspired. It’s a song about changing your ways while there are still miles left to travel, sung by someone with the landscape etched into his heart.