I really wasn’t sure what I was going to think of Western Stars. Not, I imagine, that many fellow Springsteen fans will give a shit what I think. But for myself, y’know – when an artist you admire releases a new album, and you’ve got your fingers crossed that you’re going to find it worthy of at least a few plays, it still matters. And the things I’d been hearing before it came out – chat about a Californian vibe, orchestral arrangements, and some YouTube tracks that seemed distinctly laid back – didn’t exactly give me high hopes.
Like, as Cilla Black might have sung, what’s it all about Brucie?
Well, having given the album a damn good listening to, here’s a few thoughts.
Numero uno. Western Stars is one of the more thematically coherent Springsteen albums of this millennium.
|"Damn - think I've locked myself out."|
Numero due. (I’m writing this in Italy, so humour me eh?) Bruce is up to his old tricks again, easing the listener into some pretty bleak stories by way of disarming music. Not his patented rock’n’roll sound to be sure, as with the likes of ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Dancing In the Dark’ in days gone by. But still, the mix of words and music here is bitter-sweet.
Numero tre. Bruce is acting his age. The guy is 70 years old this September. Do we really expect him to be making love in the dirt with Crazy Janey? It would be a bit – undignified, wouldn’t it?
So what we have here, in various guises, are songs about some old geezers with regrets. A couple of them, like ‘Western Stars’ and ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’, seem to present characters from the movie world – marginal guys whose heyday is long gone. The former is the tale of a one-time horse opera actor, with a narrative and a melody that sound like they’ve escaped from Nebraska– but with a very different, less claustrophobic arrangement. The latter sounds like the guy from ‘Racing In The Street’, older and even more care-worn, reflecting on where he started from – “At nineteen I was the king of the dirt down at the Remington draw” - and where he’s ended up, after a long past fling with a girl in a B-Movie, “trying to get the pieces to fit”.
The opening couple of tracks sound innocent enough though, don’t they? ‘Hitch Hikin’’ starts off with dreamy acoustic strumming before developing a gorgeous string theme, to accompany the perspective of a guy who seems happy to drift mentally as well as physically, chilled out as the landscape and miles wash over him. Where’s he coming from though – and why? And ‘The Wayfarer’ follows in a similar lyrical vein, with an orchestral arrangement that suggests wide open spaces in a dialled down Aaron Copland style – which then flows over into the following ‘Tucson Train’, which sounds like it’s recycling a melody from, I dunno, ‘Lonesome Day’ maybe, as the backdrop to stronger hints of lyrical bleakness. Sure, the guy is waiting for his baby to arrive off the train. But he’s waiting for her after having run out on her in the past, because he had to get his own shit together through the dignity of labour. And you know what? We never learn whether she gets off the goddamn train.
|"Where did Patti say to pick her up again?"|
And that sets the tone for a host of tracks featuring refugees from relationships that somehow, sometime in the past, enigmatically went wrong. Musically, meanwhile, it’s no surprise to find that Bruce cited Jimmy Webb as an influence – the writer of the likes of ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ for Glen Campbell – when you hear stuff like ‘Sundown’ and (funnily enough) ‘Hello Sunshine’, the latter a song about loneliness and a wish that the sunshine wouldn't go.
‘Sundown’ conjures up the first hint of a most un-Boss like crooning vocal, to go with some ultra-sophisticated harmonies and lush strings, and this reaches its apogee on ‘There Goes My Miracle’, on which Bruce produces a full on, and very convincing, Tony Bennett-style vocal performance. At first blush it sounds utterly romantic, a love song. But the sting that shouldn’t be ignored is that the object of the narrator’s affections is walking away. This is not, I think, the celebration of an enduring relationship. The song ends with the phrase “Sunrise, sundown.” Things come, things go.
The album ends with ‘Moonlight Motel’. And the veritable horde of string, woodwind and horn players required on other tracks ain’t needed here. It’s spare and lovely, as another aging loner visits a once-romantic scene that’s now dilapidated and deserted. He could be the guy who lit out with the girl in ‘Thunder Road’, now feeling like another of the ghosts of the boys she sent away.
What’s it all about, Brucie? The guy has always had a compunction to hit the road, to follow those white lines in his head, like the Wayfarer. And I’d hazard a guess that some of this material reflects his struggle with depression, which he explored at length in his recent autobiography. But all these songs about mysteriously broken relationships don’t sound like him pondering married life with Patti Scialfa, who gets a pointed credit for her contribution to the vocal arrangements here. Are there some other ghosts he’s trying to purge?
Whatever, there’s one song that doesn’t fit the template, and it’s the most accessible track on the album. With a skipping rhythm, and cajun-style accordion courtesy of Chuck Giordano, ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’ sounds like the cheerful kinda joint that the couple in ‘The River’ might frequent of a weekend, once the kids are all grown up and have flown the coop. It’s a song you hear and immediately think – tune!
Western Stars isn’t an album I’m likely to play to death. But it sure as hell demonstrates that Bruce Springsteen has an artistic brain that’s still got some mileage in it, down those highways of the American experience.