Way back in 2007, when Bruce Springsteen brought Arcade Fire out at an Ottawa concert, it was a statement about two generations of music. Back in the late-aughts and early teens, the hottest rock acts in the world, like Titus Andronicus and The Hold Steady, were lining up to pay homage to the Boss. For a generation of hipsters, Springsteen was the North Star. He was authenticity personified, having romanticized the blue-collar life he grew up in since they had been in diapers.
For the wayward hipster looking for something real, Springsteen’s stories were filled with mystery and something that had been eluding them for a long time: hope. “I believe in the Promised Land,” Bruce sang. Singing along with him meant that you did, too.
The era of the hipster Springsteen revival has been gone long enough to make a comeback. Rock is back in 2023, maybe without its old cultural dominance, but certainly as a subgenre capable of holding its own. An album like the Country Westerns’ Forgive the City, their new second album and their first in three years, shows that looking to rock heroes still pays off.
Springsteen looms large over the Country Westerns, as do The Replacements, The Heartbreakers, and X. There’s a ramshackle sense to the band, which they describe as “punk rock chutzpah with a classic rock sheen.” What that means becomes crystal clear on “Knucklen’,” Forgive’s opening track. “If I’m candid I feel mean / I’ve been drunk in all dreams / When they shut down the street, it was a kind of relief,” spits out Joey Plunkett, the project’s lead singer.
That’s undoubtedly a reference to COVID, which hit the Country Westerns hard. Their first album dropped during the pandemic’s peak, preventing them from touring it. And that was only the latest struggle. The previous year, one of the band’s mentors, David Berman of the Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, passed away just before going on tour with them. Back in 2020, Plunkett described the band, in the wake of Berman’s death, as being “back at square one with the ‘we’re just this garage band, who cares’ mentality.”
That brutal loss clearly reverberates through Forgive the City, but so does the need to keep pushing forward. “In the middle we were juiced up a little, but in the end we were fine,”—he sings on “Country Westerns”—“lost lifers with a long list of reasons to load and roll the dice.” They’re gamblers who accept their own lack of control. “Lucky 13 or an ace and a deuce, we ain’t the kind, you know, the kind who get to choose, and it’s always been Country Westerns for me.” A highlight of the album, “Country Westerns” is a thesis and statement of defiance at the same time.
Another highlight is “Wait for It,” which feels right out of Springsteen’s River era. “Every day I just wait for it, I ain’t chasing around,” Plunkett declares. Like Springsteen singing “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” Plunkett here describes a decade’s worth of longing in just a few words.
But any album with Forgive in the title shouldn’t be too big of a bummer. The Country Westerns are equal parts despair and glory. On the last track Plunkett wrote for the album, “It’s a Livin’,” he sings of “the new arrivals, crammed in the same dust as their idols.” He’s been bitter, he’s been grateful, he’s been trying to manage his expectations. He needs to get out of the city before he can forgive it.
“This life we’re living, it feels like a long ago,” Plunkett says before a lovely, joyous guitar solo that carries the rest of the track. Who knows where rock will go in time where touring is so rough, when everything is so tough. But if it goes like the Country Westerns sound, we’ll be alright.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.