Album Review: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

The record to make you want to hire a convertible and drive through California with your love. 

This Friday, Columbia Records is releasing Bruce Springsteen brand new solo record Western Stars.  The 13 tracks were recorded primarily at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey, with additional recording in California and New York, and encompass a sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope. Ron Aniello produced Western Stars with Springsteen, and the album’s musical arrangements include strings, horns, pedal steel and contributions from more than twenty other players.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen about Western Stars. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

The album dives right into that familiar Springsteen sound with his signature vocals. But Hitch Hiker and The Wayfarer that kick off this record also adds other elements that are not quite as intrinsic for his fans – there’s strings, banjos and melodies that are more poppy. And it all comes together in songs that have majestic, cinematic appeal. Western Stars could easily be the soundtrack to your new favourite Hollywood blockbuster. Set in 1970’s California, surfers on the beach, but they’re wearing cowboy hats. Because that’s Springsteen for you. Painting pictures with lyrics and sounds is what he does best.

Recent single Tucson Train takes us back to Springsteen’s 2012 record Wrecking Ball – just with a softer touch. But it would still fit perfectly onto that record with its hint of Land Of Hopes And Dreams. It’s also one of the few songs on Western Stars that’s got more of a rock’n’roll attitude which is by no means a bad thing. It’s Springsteen’s solo records where we truly get to see what else he is capable of. Exploring new sounds, new instruments and a new audience perhaps. In including tracks like Tucson Train, the boss makes sure to not alienate his die-hard, long-term fans (but could he ever really do that anyway? We don’t think so. With Springsteen fans, it’s ride or die until the end.)

The album’s title track Western Stars paints a picture of an aging western actor who picks up women with lines like “Once I was shot by John Wayne.” The character adds “That one scene’s bought me a thousand drinks.” The slide guitar that makes an appearance here and there really brings to light the John Wayne reference and cowboy-story feel.

Sleepy Joe’s Cafe features those 70’s pop influences heavily, taking you to the Copa Cabana more so than Joe’s Cafe by the highway on the way home from work. But yet he makes that place sound everything but sleepy, hell, we want to stop at Sleepy Joe’s Cafe to watch “the folks pouring in from town, Joe keeps the blues playing” and then Springsteen walzes in to “feel the work week slip away” and says “see you out on the floor when Monday Morning’s a million miles away.” Sounds like a working man’s party if you ask us!

Then there is Sundown – a beautiful, big-sounding love song. We’d like to believe it’s dedicated to Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa, and finding that partner for life to spend your “sundown” with after being on the road for a long time. “I drift from bar to bar here in lonely town, just wishing you were here with me in sundown.” Sundown also is one of those songs on Western Stars where you could replace the orchestra by the E Street Band and it could be on any other Springsteen record. Which is a good thing, if we may point that out.

The country elements on Western Stars run high on the aptly titled Somewhere North Of Nashville. Slide guitars and acoustic fingerpicking, stripped back melodies and honest lyrics – it could be straight out of the Bluebird Cafe. We almost, kind of, want Dolly Parton to duet this track with Bruce at some stage, wouldn’t that be fabulous?!

Stones and There Goes My Miracle once again take a big page out of that classic American songbook with the influence of 70’s pop. Both in its grandeur and simplicity, the sound is intriguing, especially to die-hard Springsteen fans, as it’s not something they’d be used to hearing. And most songwriters of Springsteen’s caliber would happily sit back and re-invent the same working formula over and over again. But on Western Stars the New Jersey icon almost takes on a path of what could have been if at the beginning of his career when pop was a phenomenon he had jumped onto that bandwagon and gone down that route. We will honestly say, we’re glad he didn’t – but how bold a statement is it of a rock legend to release a pop-infused record but not trying to be modern and rather going way back in time. Such as on the anthemic There Goes My Miracle, a pop tune that would have made Burt Bacharach so proud.

The album’s lead single Hello Sunshine encompasses everything this new solo record is trying to convey. Elements of old school pop, classic American story-telling and a hint of country music. And then Western Stars closes its book with Moonlight Motel which offers this feeling of special moments between two people when no one else matters. It tells the story of lovers seeking refuge at a run-down motel just to have a few hours to themselves. It’s the sweet, honest simplicity of Springsteen’s love songs that make them so special. No need for grand comparisons, just the truth, from the bottom of the lover’s heart.

And even though at this point it seems that Springsteen has told every tale there is to tell of the great American songbook, he goes and finds new stories to share about forgotten cowboys and their struggles, about broken-hearted Californian lovers finding new luck somewhere else and about honest love stories. The rhythmic and smooth pop that reflects the 1970’s explosion of popular music, which Springsteen often reflects on in interviews and his recent autobiography, is his very own new adventure.  And with a sound that seems lavishly fresh and light, yet not overthought, Springsteen gives us another favourite to add to our never-ending collection of boos records we love.