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Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars (Album Review)

Tuesday, 18 June 2019 Written by Huw Baines

There has always been a restlessness to Bruce Springsteen’s music. As he ambled from bar to bar in Asbury Park, it manifested in thousand-words-a-minute flights of fancy. Soon, he was taken by the road and its promise of escape. Driven on by bombast and the communal spirit of his live shows, the real world sometimes felt like it was out of sight around the next bend.

That’s less true when we consider his solo records. On the desolate ‘Nebraska’ and the furious ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, in particular, Springsteen found no easy way out of dodge. With the excellent ‘Western Stars’ things aren’t so clear cut—at times this feels like another extension of his personal mythmaking, at others a grim insight into loneliness and disappointment.

Across a slate of outwardly breezy pop songs, we have a front row seat as one of the monoliths of modern American culture interacts with others that came before him.

This record inhabits a world of AM radio, sweeping western scores, and Glen Campbell’s gilded tenor, with Springsteen’s stamp added in as light a touch as he can muster.

But, for all his merits as a songwriter and bandleader, he’s no chameleon, and this trip to the west coast sometimes finds him wearing motorcycle boots on white sand. As a result there is an intriguing balance between the sun-dappled world inhabited by the record’s influences and the nature of Springsteen as a performer.

He has always been prepared to out-work his contemporaries in every facet of the game, but pop songs like these have generally been delivered best by artists who make it look easy. Campbell’s serene execution of the lyric “By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising,” would feel a little blunt, even on the nose, in Springsteen’s mouth. It’s to his credit that ‘Western Stars’ manages to sidestep this clash with no little grace.

There are moments when things don’t click—some of the LP’s strings have that clumsy ‘Rising’-era heft, a couple of songs skate too close to pastiche—but there are more that take on a comforting, almost treacly air of nostalgia. Some late-career vocal grit adds warmth to the satisfying refrain of There Goes My Miracle, and the title track has gravitas to match its rich strings and slow-burn melody.

Springsteen, sticking to his solo record blueprint, also adds pathos and heartache cribbed from the real world. Cutting back against instrumentation that could have tumbled into cloying dreck, he finds characters who are lonely, bereft, and broken by hope. The title track is a Hollywood retelling of Glory Days, with a washed up actor standing in for the high school baseball star: “Once I was shot by John Wayne, it was towards the end. That one scene's bought me a thousand drinks, set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend.”

On the spare, brutal Somewhere North of Nashville, we glimpse a country singer heading nowhere. “Came into town with a pocketful of songs, I did the rounds but I didn’t last long,” Springsteen knowingly sings. In that moment ‘Western Stars’ veers towards the existential angst of ‘Nebraska’, even if it only lingers for a moment.

It’s in these exchanges that we see Springsteen’s power as a pop culture figure—here he hangs with his heroes but is nevertheless able to bend the narrative to his will, allowing archetypes to appear grounded and human. The music is gorgeous, light, even fun at times, but he can’t help reminding us that there’s darkness on the edge of town.

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