By Tommy Housworth, contributor
It’s been a few years since Bruce Springsteen dropped hints about a mysterious solo project, one he indicated would be different from his previous ventures that have excluded his legendary E Street Band. He mentioned Aaron Copland and Jimmy Webb as influences and talked of vast musical landscapes with sweeping arrangements.
The project lived on a studio shelf for years, as Bruce toured behind the odds-and-ends pastiche of High Hopes, followed quickly by a 35th anniversary global outing for “The River,” the release of his best-selling memoir, and the staging of his long-running one-man Broadway show. The question remained, when the restless Springsteen settled back down, would this project see the light of day or would he leave it for the archives?
Thankfully, Bruce felt the collection, titled “Western Stars,” was a worthy addition to his canon.
Listeners will find fingerprints of everyone from Bacharach and Kristofferson to Glen Campbell and Roy Orbison on these compositions. Those who choose to settle in with the album, rather than dismiss it as simply “his cowboy album”, will find rich rewards.
As with many veteran artists, Springsteen has a strong contingency of fans who merely wish he would continue to revisit his glory days (no pun intended), with stadium-sized anthems and tales of young men looking for a way out of their stagnant geography. But the 25 year old who beckoned Mary from her front porch in “Thunder Road” is now on the doorstep of 70, and life’s fears and dreams look very different than they did when he sought the closest two-lane out of town to go case the promised land.
And yet, it is that very notion of a promised land that continues to emerge on Springsteen’s musical canvas. He paints it very differently than he did on 1978’s “The Promised Land”, when his view of the mythical west was a metaphor for a seemingly unattainable peace of mind. Today, that hungry soul staring down “a dark cloud rising from the desert floor” has made way for a wearier but hopeful wayfarer who has made a fragile peace with the storms he can’t tame.
“Western Stars” makes no apologies for embracing the archetypes of the west. Springsteen himself deemed the collection “Grand Canyon music.” The songs celebrate open roads and open skies. He sets the tone with “Hitchikin’,” a light-as-a-breeze opener that features our protagonist skimming across the plains with a variety of strangers willing to give a lift to a pilgrim who professes “maps don’t do much for me, friend. I follow the weather and the wind.”
“Tuscon Train” chugs along with the steady rhythm of the 5:15 and a string arrangement that would make the original Rhinestone Cowboy proud. “Sundown,” too, benefits from the lush sonic architecture that ensconced some of Campbell’s best work with Jimmy Webb. “There Goes My Miracle” follows suit, while pushing Springsteen toward some of his purest vocal work in years, hitting a majestic stride on a chorus that soars like the refrain of Campbell’s classic “Galveston.” For those who argue that the Boss can’t sing, this song may give you pause before you double down on that criticism.
Of course, no Springsteen album is complete without character studies, ballads of men who exist in the margins. In the past, those characters have been factory workers and migrants, people in search of the elusive promised land that America claims to be. This time, Springsteen builds his personas from another California staple: the movie business. In “Drive Fast”, he embodies a Hollywood stuntman, who has accepted his fate as an aging day player who doesn’t “mind the scars,” a trade-off for the adrenaline that allows him to still feel something. On the album’s title track, accented by a hint of Ennio Morricone, he’s an actor who leverages his career highlight, being shot by John Wayne, as an opportunity to tell his tale of glory as curious barflies buy him drinks to hear about his scene with the Duke. What he really longs for, though, is to be one of those cowboys he portrayed, out where “the western stars are shining bright again.”
Springsteen revisits the introspective lyrics that defined Tunnel of Love in “Stones”, a song about a man confronting his own acts of betrayal, weighing him down with no seeming access to redemption. Likewise, “Hello, Sunshine,” which moves along with a steady cadence of bass lines and drum brushes, goes inward – a gentle nod to Springsteen’s bouts with depression, which seemed to consume him in recent years. The balladeer pleads for the sun to prolong its visit, and yet, seems resolved to its impermanence, while making the best of whatever else the vast, empty roads may offer, all too aware that, at 70, “miles to go is miles away.”
Springsteen has dabbled in lush orchestration before, most recently on some of the meticulously produced tracks from 2007’s “Magic” and 2009’s “Working on a Dream.” Some of these songs soared, such as the Brian Wilson homage “Girls in their Summer Clothes”, but others sunk under their ambitious weight, and a couple (think “Queen of the Supermarket”) were just misguided enigmas.
What “Western Stars” provides is cohesion, a stylized sound that gives Springsteen permission to play in a certain time and space, and that freedom sounds as if it liberated him – at least for a moment – from the burden of being The Boss. While given a sense of unity and structure by virtue of its musical oeuvre, “Western Stars” authenticity comes from Springsteen’s weary yet hopeful voice. It’s a voice – shifting from narrator to narrator – that is open to what the road may offer, to the breaks in the rolling clouds, and that – some forty years after first singing it – still believes in a promised land.