Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen - Sworn to secrecy I’ve been listening to the album for a couple of days and I adore it already as it grows with every listen.
Bruce Springsteen returns with his best work, in my opinion, since Magic in 2007, or possibly as far back as 1997’s Tunnel Of Love.
It’s a widescreen homage, very lush with strings and horns making it feel very warm and comforting , in 13 short stories, to the wide open spaces of the USA, populated by characters who often feel weary to me, past their prime, down but not out, sometimes looking back. Often they remind me of Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson from ‘The Wrestler’ insofar that you feel you are rooting for them. It’s also a homage to the late 60’s/early 70’s pop you associate with the likes of Burt Bacharach, Glen Campbell with Jimmy Webb and Nilsson, even Neil Diamond. When the backing, be it strings, horns or orchestration and vocals combine it really becomes a big and beautiful thing.
The first 2 tracks are about travellers, by road in opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ and by car & presumably on foot in ‘The Wayfarer’. Hitch Hikin opens quite acoustically but opens up as many of the tracks do adding instrumentation as it builds. The hitcher gets 3 rides from a family man, a trucker and a gearhead (presumably a boy racer or petrolhead?). The family man has his pregnant (wife? or partner) Sally with him and Bruce the hitcher notes ‘Yes indeed sir, children are a gift, Thank you kindly for the lift’, the former the first killer line I reckon, for any parents at least. It feels a more positive chosen existence than that of The Wayfarer (which is the stronger of the 2 for me) where you feel he is more of a drifter.
By track 3 Tucson Train it feels like we’ve moved to the sunshine of the West Coast (from San Francisco). Slightly more of a country feel with a bit of twang to his vocal delivery, perhaps in the vein of Johnny Cash. He’s a crane operator waiting for his baby, who he has split with after a row over nothing, coming in on the 5.15 from Tucson and he feels positive, like she’s coming, although we don’t find out for sure that she’s definitely arrived.
Title track ‘Western Stars’ is next. It is simply beautiful and I love it! It’s the first track to use the trick of repeating the opening line as the last line too, in this case ‘I woke up in the morning, just glad my boots are on’. It’s unclear to me whether that means he’s just glad to be alive, or happy cos he’s too tired to make the effort to put them on, probably the former. It has some great descriptive lines too. Our hero (for he feels like a hero to me) is an actor, not a lead as his claim to fame is ‘Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah it was towards the end (Of Wayne’s career or maybe both of theirs?), That one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks, set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend’. As the music builds (there are plenty of string and other flourishes here) you feel as though you want to know more too. He’s now doing an ad for viagra it appears but overall it feels as though he is positive it’s the start of a resurgence perhaps. This one may go down as a Bruce classic when we eventually look back at his career output.
Track 5 ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ is lighter, tex mex in style perhaps, with featured accordion, organ and trumpet too. I don’t think it’ll be the fans’ favourite but my dad said it was his favourite, as I expected, cos he likes the rhythm more than the emphasis on the words. It’s the slightest, most upbeat track on the album, slipping nicely between 2 slower longer tracks. Joe got out of the army with an army loan and opened a small cafe with his new wife May. Business is thriving since the highway came past as the bikers and truckers come to eat, drink and dance. I like it too.
The title of track 6 Drive Fast (The Stuntman) gives away the job of our storyteller. This one was a slow burner for me, took several listens to really like it. Another to repeat the opening line at the end and a good one too, ‘I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone, A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home. This guy has gone through the mill. It’s open to interpretation (I think) whether or not he’s still with his girl. ‘Drive fast, fall hard, keep me in your heart’ - good stuff. I also love these lines in the opening verse, ‘At nine, I climbed high into the boughs of our neighbourhood’s tallest tree, I don’t remember the fear, just the breeze. For me it’s referring back to the moving story of Bruce’s tree from the Bruce on Broadway production. Lovely.
‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’, track 7 is another of my favourites. It starts with a lone cello (?) and builds and builds. There’s some lovely imagery here, but perhaps this is the story of a guy looking back with regrets, who doesn’t want to think back too hard. Interestingly he pinched a melody from his own ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’ from the ‘Magic’ album but here uses it to better effect, I think. This is one of the best tracks imo.
Sundown is another lovely melody, but not so positive a story. He’s definitely apart from his girl. He’s throwing himself into his work on the county line (Wichita Lineman nod) hoping she’ll come back when summer’s through, but probably realising she won’t be, as he drifts from bar to bar, in lonely town. Has a feel of some Neil Diamond to me too. Very lush sounding track.
The shortest track is track 9 ‘Somewhere North Of Nashville’. At first I felt it was too brief but it’s grown on me. Our subject is a failed songwriter, who may have finally found some success or at least the prospect of some’ by trading his girlfriend for a song. He’s realised though that it was an error as he lies awake in the night lonely somewhere north of Nashville.
Track 10 is Stones. I’m only guessing at the meaning. The melody is lovely but I suspect the writer is unhappy or has had a run of bad luck based on the meaning of dreams where one has Stones in the mouth. Perhaps the disappointment is with his partner who he suspects hides more than the lies she has admitted to, or perhaps she is saying they are only the lies he has told her. It’s a bit murky or open to interpretation for me-not necessarily a bad thing. Repetition really works on this one. Reminds me of Neil Diamond and not just because of the title.
Both the previous track ‘I woke up with stones in my mouth’ and track 11 ‘There Goes My Miracle with the line ‘Sunrise, sundown’ use the repetition of opening and closing lines again. A technique that makes me feel the stories or vignettes have come full circle or are complete. This one has come in for some criticism from fans, perhaps too repetitive or too produced. Somehow it doesn’t seem to jar as much as part of the overall album in my opinion anyway. It sounds uplifting but the lyrics appear to give away that his partner is leaving with him having been a fool and disobeyed the book of love rules.
Hello Sunshine was the first track released. It evokes ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ perhaps in melody and the lyrics appear to deal with his depression and anxiety issues as he hopes the positive will stay and outrun the negative side.
Finally ‘Moonlight Motel’ is a place on a two lane deserted highway that has closed down. It feels almost like a lullaby, a really pretty song and melody. The protagonist is reminiscing it seems to me concluding that ‘it’s better to have loved’.
I really like this album a lot. It feels like an American movie. Often with his best writing you can form a mini movie or images in your mind and this has that in spades. It is lush, rich and panoramic too. it reminds me of driving the vast spaces of the US countryside a couple of years ago, especially the Natchez Trace Parkway. I think it’ll work just as well on the A303. Pure escapism! The orchestration really adds to the richness and fullness of the sound and Bruce is in excellent voice throughout. He said in Springsteen in Broadway that what he misses about getting old is that blank piece of paper, the endless possibilities that go with youth. You feel that with these characters. It feels old, weary, lived in, but as I said at the start down but not out. There is always another day, until the end anyway...
Not gonna rank them all but my favourites, at this early stage, are
Chasin’ Wild Horses
Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
The rest are not far behind either..
I think most Bruce fans, certainly most of the ones I know, are gonna love this latest output and with luck a return to the E Street Band lies not too far in the future too....