Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars (Columbia) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019  

Bruce Springsteen

Western Stars

Columbia

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In a 1984 interview that aired on MTV, Bruce Springsteen told the network's Mark Goodman, "I'd like to get more records out. I'd like to get more, different kinds of records out." At that stage of Springsteen's career, as his blockbuster album Born in the U.S.A. was projecting him to the highest echelon of rock stardom, he already was known as an astonishingly prolific songwriter and recording artist who gave away hits ("Because the Night," "Fire," "This Little Girl") to other artists but also one who released albums with less frequency than peers such as Bob Dylan, Prince, and Elvis Costello. Bootlegs of unreleased Springsteen material circulating back then proved that, if he wanted to, he indeed could release excellent albums at a quicker rate. "It's one of the main things I want to change about the way that we've operated," Springsteen said in the interview, referring to his decade of work with The E Street Band.

At the time, Springsteen had no way of knowing that he would go on to release only one studio album over the next eight years. It was a damn good one, 1987's Tunnel of Love, an intimate album that's generally regarded as a reflection on Springsteen's relationship struggles with his first wife, actress Julianne Phillips, whom he married in 1985. On Tunnel of Love's penultimate track, "When You're Alone," Springsteen sings one of the album's many revealing lyrics, especially in light of the personal and career highlights he'd enjoyed in 1985: "There's things that'll knock you down you don't even see coming." Phillips filed for divorce in 1988, Springsteen broke with the E Street Band in 1989 and then wrestled over new material without the band. When he returned to the spotlight in 1992 with the simultaneously released albums Human Touch and Lucky Town, he was 42, and while his personal life had stabilized—he married E Street bandmate Patti Scialfa and they had their first two children—the new albums were met with a lukewarm reception critically and commercially. Springsteen had been eager to work with new musicians, but amid a burgeoning '90s alternative culture, his new albums felt, for the most part, stylistically bereft of adventure. What, after all, was Springsteen envisioning when he said he wanted to make different kinds of records?

To his credit, Springsteen always has been interested in moving in different directions. Each of his commercial breakthroughs or comebacks was followed by something leaner musically or starker in tone, or both (Born to RunDarkness on the Edge of Town, The RiverNebraska, Born in the U.S.A.Tunnel of Love, Greatest HitsThe Ghost of Tom Joad, The RisingDevils & Dust). And his decisions in the 2000s to work with producers by trade—Brendan O'Brien and then Ron Aniello—helped to expand his musical palette (sometimes with mixed results) and infused curiosity and vitality into his recordings.

In this respect, Western Stars, Springsteen's newest studio album and 19th officially, has been decades in the making, arriving 35 years and 10 days after Born in the U.S.A. With that landmark album, Springsteen embraced synthesizers for the first time. Here, he indulges in string and brass orchestration to illuminate his tales of searchers and risk-takers who have weathered years of twists, turns, triumphs, and disappointments in pursuit of the American Dream. Springsteen has dabbled with strings and horns dating back to his second album, 1973's The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, but never has he fused orchestration so comprehensively into his music. On the album, he's joined by an array of musicians both new and familiar to him, among them former E Street keyboardist David Sancious on two tracks and Jon Brion, who contributes Moog, Farfisa, and percussion as well as other instruments. On the title track, lap steel, and conga coexist with French horns, bassoon, alto flute, and oboe.

Strings and piano sneak in like a welcome breeze on opening track, "Hitch Hikin'," a charmingly naïve song that begins with voice and banjo. Its young narrator, perhaps the most bright-eyed and well-mannered character in Springsteen's canon, chronicles his hitch-hiking travels by creating a series of vignettes, identifying the subjects of his scenes in blunt fashion, like a child pointing out the scenery on a car ride.

Second track "The Wayfarer" continues the romanticized rambling theme, lyrically harkening to the idealism of "Born to Run" but also injecting some of the conflict that Springsteen examined on The River, the tug of war between the freedom of the road and the comfort of home. The song begins with a sharp piano-and-percussion rhythm that hints at musical theater, giving way to strings that conjure a quaint, small-town America setting of yesteryear. It's easy to picture a theater stage with a backdrop of houses drenched in auburn lighting. At one point, Springsteen even teases a vocal melody that would suit a musical. But then things get more cinematic. When the song builds to a sweeping brass melody accompanied by snare drum, it's the sonic equivalent of Dorothy Jordan in The Searchers opening the front-porch door to reveal the splendor of the Monument Valley landscape.

Along with "Death to My Hometown," from Springsteen's 2012 album, Wrecking Ball, "The Wayfarer" is his most musically bold and surprising track since 1984's "Dancing in the Dark." As background vocalists Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell join in toward the end, it becomes evident what Springsteen meant when describing Western Stars as inspired by 1970s Southern California pop.

This is not to say that Western Stars, produced by Aniello with Springsteen, marks a complete left turn for the singer/songwriter. Traces of his previous work pervade the album. The crane operator in "Tucson Train" sounds a lot like the narrator of Tunnel of Love's "Two Faces" when he sings, "We fought hard over nothin'/We fought till nothin' remained." A brief vocal section of "Western Stars" revisits a melody from Tunnel of Love's "All That Heaven Will Allow." "Sleepy Joe's Café" is as reminiscent of The Kinks' "Come Dancing" as it is Springsteen's own "Mary's Place" from 2002's The Rising. A small vocal portion of "Stones" has faint echoes of the Academy Award-nominated "Dead Man Walkin'" from 1995. And "Chasin' Wild Horses" recalls "Your Own Worst Enemy," a lushly arranged track from Springsteen's 2007 Magic album that now seems like an antecedent to some of the widescreen sounds on Western Stars.

The album's musical grandeur, however, would be immaterial if Springsteen's songwriting couldn't carry the weight. That's a problem he encountered with his 2009 album, Working on a Dream, which consisted of enticing melodic ideas and swelling instrumentation but also lyric-writing that at times felt half-baked or even bordering on parody, "Queen of the Supermarket" being a prime offender. With Western Stars, Springsteen once again paints vivid scenery wherein his characters can roam while recounting their stories of loss, regret, rejuvenation, and perseverance, like the elder actor in the title track who spots a coyote from his canyon home overlooking Sunset Blvd. or the stuntman in "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)" who correlates the broken parts of his body to a fractured relationship. Western Stars closer "Midnight Motel" reveals Springsteen in classic singer/songwriter form, employing dreams, memory, taste, smell, and setting to render a haunting tale of ephemerality.

Western Stars is a fascinating album for listeners already invested in Springsteen's work, not only because of the new territory he explores stylistically. Fans also will recognize autobiographical parallels in the wake of his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run. His recent candor about his own depression and neck surgery add sobering context to the elegantly plaintive "Hello Sunshine" and "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)," respectively.

Pulled back from a wider view, several songs might come off as dreary and sluggish at their core, and some melodies won't latch on until repeated plays, a glaring exception being "There Goes My Miracle," a lyrically slight track that boasts one of the songwriter's finest-crafted choruses ever. In the 32 years since Tunnel of Love, Springsteen has released more than a few very good to nearly great albums, but not one that reaches the heights of his 1973-1987 output. At this point, should Western Stars be evaluated against the best of Springsteen's decades-long discography or rather the most acclaimed work of other artists from the past two years? If the latter, Western Stars stands up well. Even a detractor should recognize the cinematic verve of the album, which raises the question why Springsteen has yet to try film scoring.

For years, he and Aniello teased the existence of the recordings that became Western Stars, as well as its impending release. That, coupled with Springsteen's public confessions of sustaining writer's block, caused some fans to speculate whether he had faith in these recordings, which might date back to as early as 2010. Rest assured, Springsteen sounds confident and comfortable on Western Stars. His 1984 self that hoped to make different kinds of records would be proud, maybe even surprised. (www.brucespringsteen.net)

 

Author rating: 8/10

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