Bruce Springsteen, "Western Stars" (Columbia)
Amid the Boss' huge catalog, this new album is a side trip in place and time: an homage to a bygone pop era and a return to one of his recurring fascinations — the present-day American West. It's not an album courting new young fans or claiming any 2019 zeitgeist.
"Western Stars" is an experiment in genre and narratives. Most (and perhaps all) of the songs are other people's stories, not Springsteen's own. In them, the West — California along with Arizona and Montana — can be a promise of open spaces and second chances. But more often, the western horizon is the end of the line, where Springsteen's characters find themselves alone with their regrets.
The music itself is a kind of character study. It harks back to an early 1970s pop style that Springsteen — now 69, whose debut album appeared in 1973 — had nothing to do with at the time. The era's elaborate productions — the sound of performers like Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich and the Mamas and the Papas — enfolded pristinely recorded acoustic guitars and keyboards, understated drums and mere whispers of country-style pedal steel guitar into lofty orchestral arrangements. At the time, it could turn corny and overwrought. In 2019, however, the style is a direct repudiation of current pop: smooth and liquid rather than rhythmic and sparse, and relying largely on acoustic, physical instruments.
Those early 1970s productions were worlds away from the turbocharged bar band that would become Springsteen's E Street Band, and they were clearly aiming for the middle of the road, not the fast lane.
On "Western Stars," a few songs — "Tucson Train," "Sundown," "Stones" — sound like the E Street Band could be swapped in for the orchestra. But Springsteen strives to meet his chosen idiom more than halfway. He wrote songs that thrive on the swells and undulations of orchestral drama.
The arc of the album moves from hope to desperation to elegy. As usual, Springsteen doesn't aim for comfort. Like his California-centered album from 1995, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," its songs depict people who usually go unnoticed and who have little left to lose. The title song, "Western Stars," is told by an aging actor who is still working, picking up women and occasionally getting recognized: "Once I was shot by John Wayne," he sings. "That one scene's bought me a thousand drinks."
By album's end, the possibilities of escape and renewal have long since faded away. "Hello Sunshine" is both the album's first single and its summation. The sound is cozy but Springsteen sings about how empty the endless road ahead had become: "Miles to go is miles away," he warns, and his refrain is actually a plea: "Hello, sunshine, won't you stay?" The rhythm guitar is a pleasant rustle, the pedal steel guitar lends a golden glow and the strings are a warm bath. Yet as soothing as they are, they're nowhere near enough to make things right.
Jon Pareles, New York Times
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