PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Bruce Springsteen's 'Western Stars' Grows More Satisfying with Repeated Exposure

Photo: Danny Clinch

Deeply moving, inventive and even a bit risky, Western Stars will take its place among Bruce Springsteen's solo gems.

Western Stars
Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records

14 June 2019

On Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen's first solo recording in 14 years, the primary influences are the borrowed elements of country, folk, and baroque pop that interlaced in the late 1960s and early 1970s rock. Springsteen has mined these fields before in his solo work, but not in a manner as on this new album, out 14 June.

Here Springsteen features strings and brass that are far more assertive than the kind of discreet and supremely tasteful orchestrations by David Campbell, among others, of the bygone folk-rock period. Springsteen used orchestral strings on prior recordings beginning with his second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973), but here the ensemble evokes the bold Americana of Aaron Copland and Richard Rodgers and mid-20th century film-score composers Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Victor Young, and the like. On the exhilarating "The Wayfarer", warm horns join a staccato string sextet pushed by Matt Chamberlain's drums; and the orchestra muscles in after the bridge, nudging the singer to the side. Strings sneak in behind Marc Muller's pedal-steel guitar in "Chasin' Wild Horse" and "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)", then broaden the songs' cinematic scope to reveal a panoramic vista.

The album's marriage of traditional folk instrumentation to orchestral music is stated in the opening number "Hitch Hikin'" as a banjo and acoustic guitar played by Springsteen are joined by swelling strings. Springsteen's familiar chugging acoustic guitar forms the spine of several tracks; his twangy electric guitar peeks out of the mix in "Sundown"; and the gentle folk tunes "Somewhere North of Nashville" and "Chasin' Wild Horses" are ushered in by his finger- and flat-picking.

Musicians from Springsteen's circle who contribute include E Street Band regulars Patti Scialfa, who appears as vocalist and vocal arranger, and Charlie Giordano, who provides the accordion on the party tune "Sleepy Joe's Café". Springsteen's reunion with keyboard player David Sancious, a member of the original E Street Band, fails to produce a memorable result, which is a disappointment. But Springsteen and co-producer Ron Aniello allowed other players to shine: Violinist Luis Villalobos and pedal-steel guitarist Marty Rifkin make moving contributions to "Stones" and "Somewhere North of Nashville", respectively.

Springsteen experiments as a vocalist too. In "There Goes My Miracle" and "Sundown", he pushes his voice to the top of its range, singing legato from deep in his chest. This bel canto approach is as appealing as it is surprising. The familiar grit in his voice returns in "Somewhere North of Nashville" and "Hello Sunshine". In the title track, he sings both sweet and ragged, as the lyrics require.

As the core of Western Stars is what defines Springsteen's body of work: well-crafted songs with an identifiable point of view delivered by finely wrought, sympathetic characters. In the title track, an aging actor downplays his glory days, but recalls that "Once I was shot by John Wayne… that one scene's bought me a thousand drinks." The character in "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)" has a beat-up body and memories of an actress he "met on the set of this B picture she made / She liked her guys a little greasy and 'neath her pay grade."

Springsteen's characters lose hard. Self-recrimination haunts the failed songwriter in "Somewhere North of Nashville" who says he "came into town with a pocketful of songs…But I didn't last long." He adds, "For the deal I made, the price was strong / I traded you for this song." In "Chasin' Wild Horses", the narrator sings: "I shout your name into a canyon / The echo throws it back." In "Moonlight Motel", a man revisits the site where he lost his love and family and finds it "boarded up and gone like an old summer song". Throughout, Springsteen displays a novelist's keen eye for detail and metaphor: a rusted chain-link fence, lies that descend like black crows on an open field, two raw eggs and a shot of gin to kick off the morning, slippers tucked under the bed.

Last month, Springsteen told interviewers he would soon be recording and touring again with the E Street Band, news that is bound to please millions but dims the light a bit on Western Stars, an admirable, occasionally thrilling work that deserves full attention of its own. Springsteen's solo albums – Lucky Town (1992), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils & Dust (2005) – contain some of his best writing; and they seem to have achieved the impossible – improving over the course of time. Similarly, with so much to unpack, Western Stars grows more satisfying with repeated exposure. Deeply moving, inventive and even a bit risky, Western Stars will take its place among Springsteen's solo gems.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.