RUMSON, NJ—After more than a year of writing and recording, Bruce Springsteen released his 18th studio album Tuesday, a concept record titled Red Dust that explores the everyday lives and struggles of immigrant workers scraping by in the 23rd-century carbonate mines on Mars.
According to the 61-year-old songwriter, the new tracks depict rugged Martian colonists as they come to question what's happened to their lives, finding themselves saddled with unpayable debts and hard-pressed to put food on the table for their embryonically harvested juvenile-clones.
"These are songs about growing up on a tough planet," said Springsteen, telling reporters that when the idea of humans and aliens working side by side in an extraterrestrial labor colony first occurred to him, he immediately knew he "had to tell their story." "The Martians aren't trying to run away from their lives or make excuses. They're proud of what they do and where they're from, even if the high-impact ion-compression carbonate mining industry isn't what it used to be."
"I try to write about universal feelings and desires," Springsteen continued. "There's tragedy, grief, redemption. But there's also nostalgia for one's carefree younger days of racing souped-up hyper-thrust cruisers through the Valles Marineris canyon, and for nights spent chasing Martian girls along the rusting boardwalks of a crater-side spaceport."
Springsteen explained that in addition to its stark, poignant portrait of a decaying futuristic mining colony, the album serves as a cautionary tale about the extinction of the galactic middle-class and functions, in itself, as a protest against the policies of a corrupt Planetary Federation that willfully neglects its poorest and neediest organisms.
The album's first single, a swaggering radio-ready stadium anthem called "Dead Man's Home," tells the tale of a construction worker drafted to fight in an unjust interstellar war, only to return disillusioned to his Martian hometown, where the ground is too frozen to bury the remains of friends killed by a burst of plasma shrapnel.
Guitarist Steven Van Zandt said that while E Street Band members had reservations about the album's concept, they were impressed with Springsteen's earnestness when he explained how the miners had moved to the colony seeking a good, honest living and then had nowhere to turn once the Martian economy failed.
"Frankly, we weren't really sure what he was talking about," said Van Zandt, noting he still has no clue what the song "Icecap Cadillac" is trying to say. "But he seemed really passionate about it, and we'd already been through 16 straight hours of rehearsal, so eventually we just went along with it."
Thus far, the album has earned mixed reviews. While many critics have expressed deep bemusement at Springsteen's sharp departure from realism, others, such as Rolling Stone editor David Fricke, have hailed the effort as "another well-executed and stirring tribute to working-class heroes by the Boss."
"It's a triumphant return to Springsteen's populist roots—when you hear these tales of yearning space loners on the economically ravaged olivine plains, there's an instant emotional connection," said Fricke, adding that Red Dust was arguably Springsteen's finest work since 1987's Tunnel Of Love. "You can't help but feel the desperation of hard-drinking Crazy Davey sitting at the space-dock bar in 'Solid Ground,' or the communal sense of resolve to rise up after a terrorist asteroid attack in 'Martian Shoulders.'"
"It's vintage Bruce, really," Fricke continued. "He hits you with a driving heartland rocker about getting your first ion-boring union card, and then turns around and delivers a stirring elegy to a Venusian migrant who was photon-blasted 41 times by merciless police droids. These are really powerful images that stick with you."
Praising the album's sparse, harmonica- laden title track, Fricke cited the acoustic number's bleak chorus as the record's finest expression of the battered miners' resilience:
We drill our way through thick basalt
Beneath a distant sun.
The two moons rise and nothing's left
But red dust in our lungs.
The album is currently available for purchase in stores and online, with 10 percent of all proceeds going to the Red Dust Fund to help poor Martian miners should they ever come into existence.