Friday, July 5, 2019

Bruce Springsteen 26: Western Stars

Even in this modern age, Bruce Springsteen has managed to keep any new album under wraps until it’s been delivered to the label. Yet no sooner had he announced Western Stars—a low-key set of songs he said was inspired Southern California, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell, that sort of thing—than he seemed to disown it, promising a new album with the E Street Band ere long. Outside of Patti, none of those guys are here, save some of the more recent backup singers and horn players, many veterans of the Seeger Sessions era, though David Sancious, of all people, plays on two tracks.
The album was developed slowly over the better part of eight years, during which he got distracted by expanded reissues, an autobiography, a Broadway residency, a couple of tours, and two other albums. The cover art is fitting, as most of the songs indeed express an overall feeling of the open plains. (What is it with these Jersey boys and cowboys, anyway?) The music is also embellished by strings, some real, some synthesized. The tone is set with “Hitch Hikin’”, which is about just that, the strings evoking a Copland sweep. Unless it’s not clear, the next track identifies him as “The Wayfarer”, who’s even more aimless than the guy in the first track, assuming he was actually headed somewhere. The next fella is standing still, waiting for his gal coming in on the “Tucson Train”, and the ending suggests she actually arrives. The title track cleverly suggests both an astronomical description as well as anonymous actors who used to work in the movies when cowboy films were all the rage. Meanwhile, those of us of a certain age know exactly what that “little blue pill” does. Two tracks later, “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” seems to cover the same theme, though it’s not clear whether the guy works in the industry or is just a lifelong daredevil, but it’s a much better song with surprising key changes; this is the album’s turning point. (In between is the clunker “Sleepy Joe’s Café”, a borderline party song for a catalog that already has too many of them.)
Indeed, the second half of the album is much stronger, where each arrangement really adds to the drama in its prescribed story. The guy who’s been “Chasin’ Wild Horses”, like others here, has been doing that as both his job and by nature. It shares a melodic hook with his Beach Boys homages of a decade earlier, but that big Western sound is brought out on “Sundown”, with its banjo and baritone guitars and yearning lyrics familiar to Wichita linemen and denizens of Galveston and Phoenix. While very brief, “Somewhere North Of Nashville” explores a different kind of has-been, this time a songwriter. The sparse arrangement is a nice departure from the rest. While it seems about as simple, “Stones” finds an excellent lyrical turn and dresses up the few chords very well, and this is one that will endure. Great as it is, “There Goes My Miracle” almost succeeds as the big anthem, but the canned drums throughout the track, and especially on the second verse, leap out of the retro mood he’d been so set on. “Hello Sunshine” brings the prairie sound back; this was the first track the masses heard, and everybody noticed its similarity to “Everybody’s Talkin’”, and Bruce should know the difference between homage and mimicry. Besides, there’s been a lot of sunshine, sunrises, sundowns, and sun in general on this album, putting his skill at sequencing into question. It probably should have gone closer to the beginning, particularly since “Moonlight Motel” could only go at the end of the album. Here the drifter has landed in a town with nothing going on but memories of the one he let get away. (There’s a lot of heartache in these songs.)
Western Stars is a nice album, and succeeds despite itself. The narrators are dusty men, older but certainly wiser and even more hopeful than the guys we met on Nebraska. Many fans loved it right away, while in a surprising departure, Rolling Stone awarded it only four stars. Chances are it’s a grower, more so than the albums he did put out while marinating on this one.
Only four months after the album’s release, a film co-directed by Bruce presented the album in a live format, complete with commentary, that was supposed to suffice for an actual tour. The soundtrack was duly released as Western Stars—Songs From The Film. We haven’t noticed any differences from the album versions, but because it’s treated as a performance it just might have the edge. Plus, only here can you find his unique performance of “Rhinestone Cowboy”, which was the biggest song in the country the week Born To Run came out. Naturally, Rolling Stone raved about it.

Bruce Springsteen Western Stars (2019)—3

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