Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Boss Heads in a New Direction, Beholding Beauty in the Setting Sun -- Album Review: Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars

Album Review

Bruce Springsteen
Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen is my favorite musician by a considerable margin, even beyond the Beatles, who I almost literally worship.

I own virtually every piece of music Springsteen--a.k.a. The Boss--has ever officially released, excepting the complete swath of concert recordings of every show since 2014 and some of his live archival releases. (I have about 40 of these "official bootlegs" but far from all.)

And as will sound crazy except to the many Bruce fanatics who have seen dozens--or hundreds--more gigs, I have had the sheer pleasure of seeing him live 50 times, most with the E Street Band backing him, but not all, including his Springsteen on Broadway show.

On June 14, Springsteen--who will be 70 in 3 months--released his 19th studio album, Western Stars, the first since High Hopes (my review) in 2014.

So it seemed natural for me to review the new album, and some friends have actually asked me to do so.

I've now listened to Western Stars enough for its 13 songs to become familiar and comfortable, yet--as with all great albums--it will likely be weeks, months or even years before the tracks feel fully natural, devoid of any "breaking them in" dynamic, such as with shoes.

And given that the album represents something of a stylistic departure for Springsteen--including a prevalence of strings, rather than hard rocking guitars & drums--I perceive it very well be a record that continues to grow on me.

I'm enjoying the album, and there are no songs I dislike. 

If you, too, are a Boss fan, I suggest you buy it, or listen online--I've embedded a Spotify player below--and I think you will find much to appreciate, while being forewarned that this ISN'T Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A. nor even Nebraska or Tunnel of Love.

That's not to say the music and lyrics are unrecognizable.

As he has throughout his long recording career, Bruce sings about blue collar working men who feel some kind of longing. A wayfarer, an ex-actor, a former stuntman, a tavern owner, etc., with the somewhat unique commonality throughout Western Stars--the title is thematic--being a sense of the west, the rustic, the wide open explored by the world's most famous New Jerseyan.

In interviews about this album--which has been in the works with Springsteen's co-producer Ron Aniello since before 2012 and supposedly completed a good while ago--Bruce cited the late-'60s "California music" of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach as what stirred his songwriting.

Along with those influences, there is--one presumes, as the narrators in Springsteen's songs don't often represent him acutely; think "Born in the U.S.A."--candor about the singer's own psyche, which he wove into his 2016 autobiography, titled Born to Run, and the Broadway show that ran for over a year (catch it on Netflix). 

As do many people, of all levels of wealth, success, fame, fortune, etc., the Boss admittedly suffers from depression, and I imagine he's addressing familiar tendencies in lyrics such as these from Western Stars' first single, "Hello Sunshine":

You know I always liked my walking shoes 
But you can get a little too fond of the blues 
You walk too far, you walk away 
Hello sunshine, won't you stay?

Along with the lushly orchestral "Tucson Train," the melancholic "Moonlight Motel," the Roy Orbisonesque "There Goes My Miracle," the album's wistful title track, plus "Stones," "Sundown," and essentially all 13 cuts, "Hello Sunshine" is what I'd describe as quality song.

And an album full of quality songs is a quality album.

But the trick in trying to review--and rate, on my @@@@@ scale--Western Stars comes in comparing it to Springsteen's remarkable past output, considering it from the standpoint of a non-acolyte who may not give it the requisite time to congeal and wondering which songs I might relish hearing concert, even in lieu of some old favorites.

That's why, at this point, I've settled on @@@@, even though it's not impossible to perceive 1/2 or full @ more may be merited, particular with increased familiarity.

Western Stars feels well on par with recent music from other master songwriters, such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, or the venerated oeuvres of Bruce Cockburn and Lucinda Williams, acclaimed singer/songwriters I've come to initially explore just in the recent past.

There has been no word yet on Springsteen tour plans, except for Bruce himself revealing in a recent interview that for the first time in years, he has--meaning in the past few months, not the Western Stars material--written a batch of songs suitable for the E Street Band to record and then tour behind, presumably in 2020.

Hopefully, he'll also opt to include some stuff from this album on an ESB tour, with "Tucson Train" and "There Goes My Miracle" perhaps the most obviously transferable choices.

And if Springsteen opts to do a small tour, either solo or with a few cohorts and a string section, I would be happy to hear any of the Western Stars songs in a live setting.

But with one of the greatest catalogs in rock history, Bruce Springsteen has put out dozens of fine songs that devoted fans may know, yet are far from "greatest hits" type tunes.

"Long Time Comin'," "Kingdom of Days," "My Lucky Day," "This Is Your Sword," "Long Walk Home" and "Jack of All Trades" are just a few favorites of mine in this realm, simply from the 21st century.

Plus, heck, he has many outtakes I think are masterpieces, starting with "Rendezvous," "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Stray Bullet," "Save My Love" and "Be True."

So while Western Stars is filled with strong songs, how many would I put on a "Get to Know the Boss" 20-song playlist aimed at a non-Springsteen fan?

Probably none. Perhaps one, just because of the newness.

How many would I really want to hear in any given E Street Band show?

Three at most, though any of the 13 over time.

Even though I've heard "Born to Run" at virtually every show--46 of 50--would I be happy if it got skipped in favor of a Western Stars track?


And in not feeling @@@@@ is proper, despite really enjoying Western Stars, my point of comparison is to classics beyond Springsteen's own. 

Even once it really sinks in, do I perceive it as a Desert Island Disc, or as part of my core being beyond Zeppelin IV, Who's Next, Nevermind, etc.?

No, but then consider this: 

Has any rock artist ever put out music past the age of 40 that decidedly tops their pre-40 output?

I don't mean have veteran acts released good, even great music. I mean, if you could only hear music that was made before a musician (or band members) turned 40 or after, from whom would you select the latter output. 

My answer is no one, including my beloved Boss, still doing amazing things at 69. 

Which is a long way of saying that Western Stars is an excellent album, but I don't think it's a transcendent one.

But decide for yourself:

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