Springsteen: Western Stars (review)

I wasn’t going to write a review of the new Bruce Springsteen album, but here we are. A few months back, the publicity machine started to hype Bruce’s upcoming solo album.  The initial description was a late 1960’s – early 1970’s vibe, a Burt Bacharach type arrangement.  That’s a pretty lofty set-up, and a departure from his past work.

I’ve made the mistake of reading various reviews and listener comments, and that’s what tripped my trigger to write a review.  I’m far from the biggest Springsteen fan, but I have long admired his work; he’s currently the best lyricist in the business.  His autobiography was a huge surprise, not only was it a joy to read, but he’s a damn fine writer.  He’s not only deeply reflective, but he has a superb command of the language to express complex emotions and tell fascinating stories.  If you are even a casual fan, it’s a great read.

Western Stars sounds very different from past albums, although I heard parallels to Tunnel of Love (1987).  The new album could very well have been made in 1971, the arrangements and length of the songs would have fit in that period.  There are no big muscle-sounding songs, nothing like “Born to Run.”  Western Stars is a gentler, quieter and very thoughtful collection of songs.  This is a singer-album, Bruce is challenged to cover a lot of ground vocally, from soft to full-out powerful strokes.  I can’t recall an album where the spotlight was so much on his voice.  Certainly albums like Nebraska put a lot of attention on his singing, but Western Stars depends on his full vocal range and to sustain this spotlight for the entire album.

Let me get back to Tunnel of Love for a moment.  This collection of songs didn’t focus on the usual Springsteen wall of sound, the big rock band sound of Born in the U.S.A., The River or Born to Run.  I found the arrangements leaner, even with the dated 1980’s production.  Synthesizers and drum machines are used for a trendier sound, but the songs were more direct and personal to Springsteen.

Instead of the synthesizer for atmosphere and string accompaniment, Western Stars uses real strings and horn instruments.  Perhaps this is the Bacharach reference.  After several listens, I don’t see the comparison, not even in the arrangements.  This album sounds little like Bacharach, however it does sound like Bones Howe, Jimmy Webb, Al De Lory, Jerry Fuller or Chips Moman.  These were very successful record producers behind such artists as Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, The 5th Dimension, The Association, Mark Lindsay, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Richard Harris, The Monkees and Elvis.

Western Stars has lovely arrangements, accentuated by, but not overpowered by strings, horns and even steel guitar.  Springsteen still constructs his songs with guitar and piano, but he ventures from the traditional E Street Band portfolio by using orchestral instrumentation.  The list of musicians who played on this collection of songs is long, and while I don’t think of this album the way albums in the 1960’s were built in the studio with The Wrecking Crew, I imagine from his demos, each song was scripted with instruments matching the mood and lyrical theme.

It’s lonesome and dusty in these traveling songs. Jimmy Webb might have written these songs for Glen Campbell in the 1971 time period. Here are a few excerpts of songs from the album.

“Tucson Train”

I got so down and out in ‘Frisco
Tired of the pills and the rain
I picked up, headed for the sunshine
I left a good thing behind
Seemed all of our love was in vain
My baby’s coming in on the Tucson train

“Sundown”

I’m twenty-five hundred miles from where I wanna be
It feels like a hundred years since you’ve been near me
I guess what goes around, baby, comes around
Just wishing you were here with me, in Sundown

“Somewhere North of Nashville”

Came into town with a pocketful of songs
I made the rounds
But I didn’t last long
Now I’m out on this highway
With a bone-cold chill
Somewhere north of Nashville

 

A New Jersey guy, Springsteen made his living singing about the blue collar working man, then began to traverse America by way of the folk stories of middle America, and how continues out West, but with his crow’s feet, leathery skin and plenty of disappointments along with way.

My favorite songs on the album are “Hitch Hikin’,” which has a melody that won’t quit, “The Wayferer,” which has a beautiful orchestral backing, “Sundown,” another lovely melody that is matched by Springsteen’s great vocal performance, “Hello Sunshine” which sounds like Poco in their heyday, and my favorite, “There Goes My Miracle,” which should be nominated for a Grammy for vocal performance.  It’s a classic.


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