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Published on July 23rd, 2019 | by voxx

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Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

The Boss takes a trip through a golden age of Americana on his latest solo LP…

The announcement of any new Bruce Springsteen album these days raises a burning question: which Bruce Springsteen are we getting? Will it be the seething firebrand of 2012’s Occupy-period rage-bomb Wrecking Ball? The dust bowl troubadour of 2005’s Devils & Dust and its spiritual forefather Nebraska? Or the well-rehearsed raconteur, alternately dismantling and reinforcing myths on Broadway? In his own bluff, double-denimed way, Springsteen is as protean as David Bowie ever was, a stylistic shapeshifter in engineer boots.

Slightly disappointingly, his first album of new material in seven years (and his first without the E Street Band in 13) has been heavily signposted in the build-up to its arrival, taking some of the fun out of the exercise. Recent interviews have namechecked such iconic songwriters as Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach, anchoring it in that golden, gauzy era of American music when people realised that “pop” and “sophistication” weren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Western Stars’ title and the painting of a bucking horse that adorns the cover evoke a different age, one of wide-as-the-highway Chevrolets, unfiltered Marlboros and movies starring Robert Redford and Kris Kristofferson.

In that respect, Western Stars fulfils its own brief. ‘The Wayfarer’ and the title track retain the usual Springsteen tropes – the choppy guitar, those instantly identifiable keyboard runs – but place them against a bigger painted backdrop that’s pure 1972. ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’, the album’s tender highpoint, is a classic Springsteen ballad given the widescreen Americana treatment, complete with weeping steel guitars and open-range orchestration. Even when he’s at his loosest, as on the down-home ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’, it’s still infused with a classiness that suggests he’s worked damn hard to sound this effortless.

If the delivery mechanism is different, the payload is pure Bruce. Western Stars is a series of 13 lyrical vignettes, a parade of wounded wanderers and broken romantics, marooned on dirt roads and in broken-down motels. If it teeters on the edge of cliché, then at least the man behind it has the good grace to acknowledge this. “It’s the same sad story, love and glory, going round and round, ” he sings on ‘The Wayfarer’, displaying the same self-awareness that ran through his 2016 autobiography Born To Run and his recent Broadway stint.

Any Springsteen solo album will inevitably be compared to Nebraska, a no-win situation whatever its quality, as Devils & Dust and 1995’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad proved. Western Stars sidesteps that potential banana skin by wearing its weight lightly – there’s little of the lyrical and musical bleakness of that stark classic, even if its central conceits remain as existentially tumultuous. There’s bone and gristle and bravado here, but its hidden inside the glinting Trojan Horse of the songs. What it does share with its much-vaunted predecessor is a sense of the literary – even more so than past albums, there’s a feeling that this is Springsteen reaching for the Great American Novel you increasingly sense is in him. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s not far off.

Western Stars has reportedly been in the drawer for a couple of years. Springsteen himself has intimated that there’s more music on its way, most notably a new E Street Band album. On those terms, this stands as a diversion – but it’s a very welcome diversion nonetheless.

- By Jake White


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