Columbia Records (label)
14 June 2019 (released)
17 June 2019
Throughout the years Bruce Springsteen has showcased an unparalleled ability to craft compelling characters and vivid scenes. The melodies are often, anthemic, uplifting, and freeing, while ultimately hiding the bigger meaning within the song.
Western Stars honours this style, while sprinkling just a tinge of movie magic into the mix.
The characters are melancholic, wistful and constantly plagued by the life that was or that could have been.
Western Stars strikes out under the guise of a jaunt through the dustbowl towns and vast open roads of the US, but for the most part relies on studies of its world worn heroes to carry it through.
Opener ‘Hitch Hikin'’ holds the tantalizing promise for the album ahead. Springsteen sings of “just travelin' up the road”, but the tingling piano and driving violin promise something more.
Bruce’s words may tease a quick sightseeing tour, but the instrumentation evokes visions of stars plucked straight from the silver screen, boldly galloping over the vast open plains and far far away from their cares.
Much in the same way as the leadoff song, backing tracks throughout the album invite the listener in, with energizing violin, warm pedal steel, and trundling guitar. The score feels like classic Americana.
The soundtrack recalls the Hollywood cowboy. Tough, brave, adventurous, and standing up for all that is right and good. Perhaps the ideal representation of the aspirational American dream.
Sadly, this project serves to give that dream a sharp kick or two along the way.
In keeping with the authors jovial affect at the top of the LP, the backing tracks are a cosy façade that hide the bleaker meanings beneath.
Fittingly the title track encapsulates the mood of the project as well as the Springsteen archetype.
‘Western Stars’ finds an actor now at the swansong of his career, wistfully attempting to cling on to the joys of younger days. The 69-year-old sings:
“On the set, the makeup girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin Then I give it all up for that little blue pill That promises to bring it all back to you again…”
As the song progresses it becomes increasingly clear that we’ve met a man in limbo. Not ready to go into that good night but stuck in yesteryears memory.
In one telling moment the artist sings:
“Here in the canyons above Sunset, the desert don't give up the fight..” Springsteen compounds the situation as he adds:
“Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end That one scene's bought me a thousand drinks, set me up and tell it for you, friend....”
You might say that his glory days have passed him by, “in the wink of a young girl’s eye”.
The album may be fuelled by bright soaring melodies, but it’s driven by a sense of longing, loss, and unrest.
‘There Goes My Miracle’ offers the perfect fairytale Vista with the last of a golden sunset shining down on the girl of the singer’s dreams. Unfortunately, there is no joy to be found here as a girl walks into the sunset and away from a heartbroken Romeo.
Fellow standouts ‘Somewhere North of Nashville’ and ‘The Wayfarer’ continue in the downtrodden vein. The former trades in a romance for a failed attempt under the bright lights of music city USA, the latter forsakes hearth and home for that nagging need of adventure.
Even as there are moments of optimism on ‘Hello Sunshine’ and ‘Tucson Train’ they are ambiguous at best.
Only once does the album truly cut loose and get away from its inward -looking musings. ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’ drops all pretence as it revels in the nightlife of a small local hangout not to mention its proprietor G.I. Joe.
If this collection of work is to be seen as tales from a jaded traveller, then this is the one moment where he’s clearly found joy. With the trumpet and accordion in full swing, the listener could almost be dancing along with the locals. Springsteen offers up:
“Saturday night the lights are bright as the folks pour in from town Joe keeps the blues playin', at the bar May lays the beers down I come through the door and feel the workweek slip away....”
You would be hard-pressed not to be taken in by the thought of a carefree place like this.
The song has a similar lyrical vibe to The River’s carefree number ‘Out In The Street’. Some fans have even speculated that Joe’s is the place the partygoers of the 1980s tune go to dance away their troubles.
Sonically, the New Jersey native has strayed away from his usual E Street Band collective in favour of something closer to the Seeger sessions band of 2006. The approach of the 19th studio album is much more in keeping with country, blues or blue grass than it is rock ‘n roll.
Despite the shift in tone the pillars of what makes for a strong Springsteen album remains intact and meld seamlessly into the new genres.
Songs are vibrant and fresh while still feeling like a classic Bruce offering. If the listener’s ear is properly attuned than the shades of Darkness on the Edge of
Town, Born in the USA, The River, Magic, and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle can be heard throughout.
The melodic housing may be new, but the themes remain the same.
It’s been almost 50 years since the songwriter debuted with Greetings from Asbury Park NJ, but his creative juices continue to flow in abundance. The journeys are compelling, protagonist relatable, while the American dream continues to be kept in check by a sour dose of realism.