Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’: Review

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On first listen, Western Stars sounds like nothing Bruce Springsteen has ever done before. On second listen, though, you start to hear connections to the catalog. And by the third listen, you’re in love. Springsteen’s 19th album—his first studio release since 2014 and his first record of all-new original material since 2012’s Wrecking Ball—is one of his finest works, which is saying plenty.

What makes the 51-minute, 13-track solo album initially seem like a departure from form is that it’s neither a rock record, like most of its predecessors, nor a folk outing, like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. Instead, this is strings-laden pop, complete with French horns, a flute, a bassoon and an oboe—less reminiscent of the aforementioned genres than of late 1960s work such as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Glen Campbell’s Jimmy Webb interpretations, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. But when you think about it, you realize that Springsteen has flirted with this turf before, in some of the tracks on The Rising, High Hopes, Lucky Town and Human Touch; in Working on a Dream’s “Kingdom of Days” and Greatest Hits’ “Secret Garden”; and especially in Magic’s under-appreciated (albeit Grammy-winning) masterpiece, “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which he has called “one of my favorite songs.”

Related: Dave Edmunds shares a Bruce Springsteen story

The lyrics, though less positive than those in many of Springsteen’s songs, aren’t really a departure at all; they’re full of the lost souls, cars and highways that have always populated his work. Most of the characters who inhabit these first-person tales are struggling and many are on the road, seemingly rooted to nothing. The album begins with a song called “Hitch Hikin’,” whose first words are “Thumb stuck out as I go/I’m just travelin’ up the road/Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind.” Up next is “The Wayfarer,” in which Springsteen sings, “I drift from town to town/When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound.”

Traveling or not, most all of Springsteen’s new protagonists seem to be down on their luck. In one song, an aging stuntman proclaims, “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone.” In the title track (which concerns stars in Hollywood, not in the sky), a faded actor relies on shots of gin and Viagra to get by.

In another number, a failed songwriter is “out on this highway/With a bone cold chill” and lies “awake in the middle of the night/Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”

There’s more: in “Sundown,” the singer is “twenty-five hundred miles from where I wanna be,” while in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the protagonist has run off to the Montana line, where he labors from sunup to sundown, tries to forget someone left behind, and makes sure “I work till I’m so damn tired/Way too tired to think.”

Of course, a song needn’t be happy to sound great. And every number on this disc is ear candy, thanks partly to indelible melodies and to the moody, perfectly attuned instrumentation, which features string and brass sections; such longtime cohorts as David Sancious, Soozie Tyrell and Charlie Giordano; and Springsteen himself on everything from guitar, glockenspiel and synth strings to celeste, organ and banjo. Patti Scialfa provides backup vocals. And speaking of vocals, Springsteen displays more range on Western Stars than he typically shows, even some falsetto on “There Goes My Miracle.”

And it’s not all gloom and doom. True, the protagonist in “Tucson Train” got “tired of the pills and the rain” in ’Frisco and left town after breaking up with his girlfriend “over nothing.” But now they’ve apparently reconciled, she’s coming to meet him and, Springsteen sings, “I’ll wait all God’s creation, just to show her a man can change.”

Even more upbeat—both musically and lyrically—is “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” which limns a guy who came home from World War II, got married and got lucky when he bought land where a highway was subsequently built, allowing his cafe to thrive. The place may be sleepy but the song—whose infectious beat recalls Tracks’ “Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own”—sure isn’t.

While most of these numbers explore themes that relate in some way to Springsteen’s life, they all also sound like products of his imagination. The sole exception is “Hello Sunshine,” the album’s first single, which seems wholly in sync with the tales of depression and alienation in Springsteen’s gripping 2016 memoir, Born to Run. “You know I always liked my walking shoes,” he sings, “But you can get a little too fond of the blues/You walk too far, you walk away/Hello sunshine, won’t you stay.” And later: “You know I always loved a lonely town/Those empty streets, no one around/You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way/Hello sunshine, won’t you stay.”

If you’ve applauded most of the previous twists and turns in Springsteen’s career,you’re probably going to love this album as well. But if you’d rather rock, don’t worry: a new tour with the E Street Band is in the works, and word also has it that Springsteen has already written music for a new record with the group.

Western Stars is available for order in the U.S. on CD here and as a 2-LP edition here. In the U.K., order the CD here and the LP here.

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Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger's website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.
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