Bruce Springsteen has always been a journeyman, but these last five years have been different. Since the release of “High Hopes” in 2014, fans have been treated to 123 tour dates, a bestselling memoir in “Born to Run,” a Tony award winning show in “Springsteen on Broadway” and its accompanying Netflix special — a prolific and stunningly diverse body of work, no doubt, but missing something: a new album.
On Friday, Bruce Springsteen returned to vinyl with his 19th studio album, “Western Stars,” billed in its announcement as featuring “character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements” inspired by the late-60s valley pop of Jimmy Webb and the late Glen Campbell. Character-driven songs are familiar to Springsteen fans — writing short stories or screenplays in single songs has been his finest craft since “Nebraska” was pressed in 1982 — but while orchestral pop was featured on 2009’s “Working on a Dream,” “Western Stars” largely breaks new ground. An album which almost always creates stunning and fresh music for its uneven lyrics to occupy, “Western Stars” ranks among the best of Bruce Springsteen’s eight solo works.
Wanderlust is a constant theme of this album. “Western Stars” opens with “Hitch Hikin’,” a song with little plot beyond what the title indicates. Still, while the verses are only barely colored in with faceless characters, “Hitch Hikin’” is a strong introduction to the album. Featuring gorgeous and deeply immersive orchestral work which builds over its three-and-a-half minutes, the strings reach their peak as the narrator rides with a “Gearhead in a souped-up ‘72 [who] wants to show a kid just what this thing’ll do.” As “telephone poles and trees go whizzin’ by,” the arrangement and soaring vocals remind the listener that like old cars, the Boss, soon to be 70, has still got it. Its horn-laden followup “The Wayfarer” offers a less jubilant kind of restlessness. Springsteen sings, “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed / But when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head.” For writer and character alike, staying still just won’t do.
The eponymous song, “Western Stars,” is the album’s best track. Decorated by a 20-piece band including a steel pedal guitar, a solid guitar strum and dazzling strings, “Western Stars” follows an actor, once “shot by John Wayne,” these days drinking too much and starring in Viagra ads — an imposing metaphor.
The song implies a double meaning in the idea of “Western Stars.” At the album’s best, western stars are people. Some are literal stars — actors and stuntmen — but most are not. They are a “rolling stone... hitch hikin’ all day long,” a “wayfarer....drift[ing] from town to town,” a crane operator “down and out in ‘Frisco,” a Montana Bureau of Land Management contractor “chasin’ wild horses”; no heroes or villains, just workingmen and cheats, in isolation, always in movement. The album is dedicated to them: on “Western Stars,” Springsteen sings, “Here’s to the cowboys, riders in the whirlwind.” Such is Springsteen’s gold, and when “Western Stars” shoots for more plot-heavy songs, the lyrics are rewarded; otherwise, when “Western Stars” tends to mean something more esoteric or celestial, the lyrics are vapid, even if they are pretty.
“Chasin’ Wild Horses” is “Western Stars”’ most sonically ambitious work. The verses’ beaten down vocals are accompanied by quiet violin work and whining slide guitar, while the choruses are blown open by a sound fit for a movie or a theme park — the kind of sound the album’s art conveys. If there’s such a thing as a “western sound,” “Chasin’ Wild Horses” is it. Paired with the more upbeat “Sundown,” which might be Springsteen’s vocal peak in a decade, it is a wonder and a feat of albumwork that these two songs can appear on the same record as the notably sparse but still beautiful “Moonlight Motel” or “Somewhere North of Nashville.”
“Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” and “Stones” leave the album’s weakest impressions. The former, about a stuntman whose body has gone to hell, feels out of touch with the album’s theme of redemption; if “Tonight, the Western Stars are shining bright again,” where does this song belong? And “Stones,” “Western Stars”’ only relationship-centered song, can only suffer Springsteen singing, “Those were only the lies you told me,” so many times. Still, “Stones” features excellent vocal work by a singer who should have entered his twilight years by now.
“Western Stars” does feature more radio ready numbers. The best of these is “Tucson Train,” released as the album’s final single. Tucson Train is the story of a character straight outta Kerouac — once “down and out in ‘Frisco, tired of the pills in the rain,” now turned workingman,acknowledging that “hard work will clear your mind and body.” Waiting for his baby on the “Tucson Train,” he’s found redemption. But whereas Tucson Train offers a level of sophistication that can forgive its cheaper sound, its commercial companions, “Sleepy Joe’s Café,” and “There Goes My Miracle,” find themselves close to “Mary’s Place,” where the song listens nicely, but the art begs for something more.
Springsteen sounds his most mature and assured on “Hello Sunshine,” a song about the depression Springsteen suffers from and has increasingly revealed to audiences. On “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen admits, having once had “a little sweet spot for the rain” and an affection for the “empty road”; but, channeling, maybe, the insight earned by a critically acclaimed memoirst and a Tony Award winner, he asks, “Hello, sunshine, won’t you stay?” A nice redemption song for a long suffering artist.
“Western Stars” is a new direction for the Boss, but not one he will chase further: It is well established in Springsteen scuttlebutt that Bruce’s next album will be one featuring the E Street Band, accompanied by another world tour. A more familiar direction for Bruce Springsteen, no doubt. But, even if “Western Stars” represents an(other) aberration in Springsteen’s discography, it is not a weak one. Looking forward into his seventies and still finding new direction, “Western Stars” is a triumph of songwriting and arrangement.
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