Bruce Springsteen’s honorific as “The Boss” has always been a bit funny, and it’s one he’s only begrudgingly accepted. You don’t have to comb through even a quarter of his discography to know that Springsteen stands for the working man, those punching their timecards and letting the calluses on their hands grow bigger. Decades as an arena sensation and his own one-man Broadway show haven’t divorced him from his roots.

Though Springsteen still knows where he’s come from, his output over the last couple of decades has been solid in terms of execution but shaky in terms of essentiality. Only E Street Band comeback album The Rising and chilling solo record Devils & Dust are worthy of revisiting as much as classics from the 70s and 80s. The sound of subsequent records show he’s still the man who made Born to Run, but they beg the question: why listen to this when we already have Born to Run?

Western Stars, Springsteen’s nineteenth studio album, is his first E Street-less effort since Devils & Dust, but that Iraq War rebuttal has more in common with Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad than this. There’s definitely some grit, particularly in the middle passage, but there’s also lots of highly intentional beauty. Western Stars is composed of stories of people who have been through hard times but who serve to inspire others as much as themselves.

That might sound like another 2019 album, from another artist with a fervent fanbase but not Super Bowl-headlining status (yet): The Mountain Goats’ In League WIth Dragons. But Springsteen isn’t sourcing his inspiration as clearly as John Darnielle does. His figures can’t be so easily pinpointed as Ozzy Osbourne or Doc Gooden. He’s more dealing with archetypes of beleaguered raconteurs trying to make their way through the world and its roads. It’s on the second song that the titular drifter of ‘The Wayfarer’ acknowledges the cliché of his status.

If Springsteen’s characters aren’t all that multifaceted, they’re at least part of songs that are. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin'’ ticks the boxes of a classic existential tale of a wanderer with his thumb out, getting picked up by a man and his pregnant wife and later a trucker with a “dashboard picture of a pretty girl” and a “gearhead in a souped-up ‘72.” His narrator is passive, but in a mindful, not apathetic way. The twang to Springsteen’s voice sells the embodiment.

But what really stands out about ‘Hitch Hikin'’ and other tracks on Western Stars is how it sounds. Springsteen called this “a return to [his] solo recordings featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” but nothing in his studio album catalog has been as sweeping as this. Many tracks start off fairly unassuming, only to explode. ‘The Wayfarer’ opens with palm-muted strums, along with strings and steady piano, but a beautiful instrumental break turns strings and horns into the stars. ‘There Goes My Miracle’ is so eager to have an explosive chorus that everything around it feels like a formality.

The thing about orchestral instrumentation in rock music is that it almost never sounds bad, provided it’s being handled by people who know what they’re doing. However, it can run the risk of sounding stifling. You can only have so many rushes of strings on a single album before you want an artist to stop playing that hand. Sometimes they’re highly effective, like on the romantic estrangement-turned-reunion chronicle ‘Tucson Train’; other times, it conflicts with what’s come before it. The otherwise-terrific title track, a story of a worn-out cowboy actor, loses its Devils & Dust-esque edge when the strings come in.

When Springsteen cuts into his characters’ pain is when Western Stars stands out as one of his best late-period works. ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’ recalls gutting River closer ‘Wreck on the Highway’, with a closing line that says all that needs to be said; “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone/Steel rod in my leg but it walks me home.” ‘Stones’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ are honest portraits of regret and depression. On closer, ‘Moonlight Motel’, a run-down inn is the perfect setting for its narrator to grapple with where’s he’s been and where he’s going. Although Springsteen’s voice is in good shape throughout this album, the poignancy of his delivery here is a highpoint.

A lot of heart has gone into Western Stars, and so has a lot of effort. For someone like Springsteen, who has every reason to just kick back as the royalty checks fly in, to keep pushing on like this is quite admirable. Another E Street record is on the horizon, so he might not stay on this exact road for much longer. But as far as detours go, it’s a damn good one.