Bruce Springsteen's 'Western Stars,' reviewed: A hauntingly brilliant journey on the highway
Bruce Springsteen is a solitary searcher forever on the road.
Why else would he end his hit “Springsteen on Broadway” driving alone on the roads of Monmouth County? The guy is drawn to the road and all that it represents.
On the hauntingly brilliant solo album “Western Stars,” due June 14 from Columbia Records, the Boss, in the words of Horace Greeley, goes to the American West, and the romanticism, tragedy and renegade spirit that it represents. The album vividly brims with scenic deserts, dusty highways, last chance stands and it jars with images of Chihuahuas in the mouths of coyotes, and stones in the mouth of a man.
This is an often a vulgar and desperate place, where a wrong turn could lead one into a danger zone dry out, or into an emotional spin.
But, then, there’s freedom. “Western Stars” comes from “inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,” according to its press materials. That seems to reference the album’s early singles, “Hello Sunshine” and “There Goes My Miracle,” but it fades away after a listen or two. On the whole, the album eases into orchestral folk-pop that sparkles.
It’s nothing like the Boss has done before, save for elements of “Working on a Dream” and the stringed tracks of “High Hopes.” Starting with the voice. You’ll recognize Springsteen’s Western man-twang on a few of the tracks, but then there’s the falsetto on “There Goes My Miracle,” an impressive range on “The Wayfarer,” and his matching the sweep of the orchestral arrangement on “Sundown.”
Did we mention the orchestral arrangements? There are French horns, bassoons, oboes, strings, and more, always in service to take the songs to new heights. “There Goes My Miracle” is stirring and sweeping. A Phil Spector-ish Wall of Sound is joined with a fatalistic Walker Brothers vibe for a song that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. A Matt Rollings piano intro builds into a stirring orchestral sweep on the majestic “Sundown.” “Hello Sunshine” suggests Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” funneled through Jimmy Webb. The up-tempo brushes contrast nicely with the tentative piano and Marc Muller’s tear-in-the-eye pedal steel, creating a subtle tension for an alluring aura of disquiet.
Other songs have a more minimal musical accompaniment. Springsteen plays banjo on the opening track, “Hitch Hikin’,” before a piano and strings come in for a folksy flourish. Muller’s mournful pedal steel frames “Chasing Wild Horses” before a lush orchestral build-up finishes it off.
The characters of “Western Stars” are compellingly tragic. Several are on the fringe of show business, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after being left behind from the hullabaloo. The protagonist in the title track’s claim to fame is that he was shot by John Wayne in a movie. Every song is tied to the road, either going somewhere and getting away from somewhere.
Or, literally, on the side of a road: “Sleepy Joe’s Café,” “Moonlight Motel.”
Perhaps the track that will vex hardcore Springsteen fans the most is “Stones,” where the protagonist wakes up with stones in his mouth. Do they represent lies, infidelities, madness, something else or all of the above? Or is the track a meditation on Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy”?
Like Wayne in “The Searchers,” Springsteen doesn’t always need to draw a picture or spell it out. The images and emotions conveyed in the songs of “Western Stars” do that. Here we have Springsteen, ever the searcher, on highways near and far, looking for emotional and spiritual fulfillment.
Or just to see what’s around the corner. “Western Stars” is more than worth the trip.
Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. His multiple awards include recognition for stories on both Bruce Springsteen and Snooki. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Produced by Ron Aniello with Bruce Springsteen; Engineered by Rob Lebret, Ross Petersen, Toby Scott, and Ron Aniello
1. Hitch Hikin’
2. The Wayfarer
3. Tucson Train
4. Western Stars
5. Sleepy Joe’s Café
6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
7. Chasin’ Wild Horses
9. Somewhere North of Nashville
11. There Goes My Miracle
12. Hello Sunshine
13. Moonlight Motel