The repetitive opening riff of “The Wayfarer,” the second track from Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars album, suggests someone going around in circles, and that’s pretty much what the title character does. He’s not born to run so much as he’s born to roam; he “drifts” from town to town, he sings.
Why? He doesn’t offer much except to say that’s just the way he is (“When I go to sleep, I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head”), though the song does briefly suggest he’s actually looking for something. “Where are you now?” he sings repeatedly, in the song’s most passionate passage. But then it’s back to drifting.
The song doesn’t add much to the album, lyrically. The previous song, album opener “Hitch Hikin’,” covered pretty much the same territory, sketching out a guy who wanders for the sake of wandering, and doesn’t have much use for traditional family life. Springsteen even acknowledges that he’s treading water, lyrically, when he sings, “It’s the same old cliché, a wanderer on his way, slipping from town to town.”
But I love “The Wayfarer” anyway, since it boasts not only one of the album’s best melodies, but an absolutely gorgeous, quasi-orchestral arrangement. Springsteen adventurously opted to give many of the Western Stars songs a sense of cinematic grandness, and this is one the songs where that strategy really pays off.
Isn’t it odd, though, that he titled the song “The Wayfarer”? I mean, that’s pretty much an archaic word, right? When is the last time you used “wayfarer” in conversation to refer to something other than sunglasses? It almost sounds as if Springsteen is trying to make something mythic out of this ordinary guy’s life — to turn his peripatetic travels into a pilgrimage — or maybe evoke an old western movie.
Background facts: “The Wayfarer” is from Springsteen’s 2019 Western Stars album. The song features a large cast of backing musicians, including string and horn sections, with former E Streeter David Sancious playing piano and Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell featured on backing vocals.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.