Bruce Springsteen brings in an orchestra for country-inspired Western Stars

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN may once have been the skinny kid from the mean streets of Freehold, New Jersey.

But, as we all know, tramps like him, baby they were born to run.

Danny Clinch 2019

Bruce Springsteen has taken a different direction for his 19th studio album Western Stars[/caption]

He’s always been a dreamer, right from the moment he saw music as his escape route from a humdrum existence like his father’s.

Even before he could drive, his songs were about hitting the open road in fast cars with beautiful girls in tow.

So, maybe his very different 19th album, released a few months short of his 70th birthday, isn’t such a surprise.

It finds Springsteen heading west on dusty trails under wide open desert skies while summoning the musical vibe of old cowboy movies as his soundtrack.

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Springsteen’s early songs were about were about hitting the open road in fast cars with beautiful girls in tow[/caption]

Hard travelling is an abiding theme . . .  whether it’s by train, horseback, truck or in one of those fabled Chevrolet El Camino utility coupes.

How does he begin his journey? By, as the title of the opening song tells us, Hitch Hikin’ with “what I can carry and my song”.

The Wayfarer is about a restless soul drifting from town to town with his “wheels hissin’ up the highway” accompanied towards its climax by a glorious horn section redolent of The High Chaparral theme tune.

Sonically, there’s nothing quite like Western Stars in Springsteen’s (mostly) stellar back catalogue and he deserves full credit for pushing his own creative boundaries.

The is nothing like Western Stars in Springsteen’s stellar back catalogue

His first solo effort since 2005’s Devils & Dust doesn’t just rank as a mere diversion from his known templates, but a full-on departure.

Gone is the organised, exuberant chaos of his records with the E Street Band but so too is the sparse, understated folk vibe of albums like Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad.

It bears sweeping orchestrations (occasionally heavy-handed but mostly sumptuous), lashings of country music’s favourite instrument, the pedal steel guitar, and female backing singers.

But perhaps the most striking instrument is Springsteen’s voice, which cruises through the gears from his familiar gritty drawl to a handsome, free-flowing croon.

Romantic, nostalgic view of America

Never as pure and smooth as those of the country Sinatra, Glen Campbell, his performances still draw comparison with By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Galveston, Gentle On My Mind and Wichita Lineman.

Springsteen conjures up a shamelessly nostalgic, romantic view of America. Perhaps it’s the blue collar firebrand’s way of dealing with his nation’s troubled times, providing us with an antidote rather than delivering a polemic.

With 13 tracks spanning 51 minutes, the album is a coherent, consistent piece work, a vision executed with clear focus and buckets of panache.

It is populated by various characters, a stuntman, a fading cowboy actor, a bar owner, a crane operator, but there’s a bit of Springsteen DNA embedded in all of them.

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Springsteen conjures up a shamelessly nostalgic, romantic view of America[/caption]

Then there are all the destinations he references, such a familiar trope of classic American songwriting (24 Hours From Tulsa and the rest).

Tucson Train, given a solid mid-tempo chug, is in the grand train song tradition of Jimmie Rodgers, the country music pioneer known as The Singing Brakeman.

Elsewhere, there’s a lonesome character Somewhere North Of Nashville on the album’s shortest, sparest song and nearest in tone to Springsteen’s previous solo work.

The jauntiest, most slight effort is Sleepy Joe’s Café, “a place out on the highway ’cross the San Bernadino line,” powered by lilting accordion and mellotron as it gathers momentum.

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Springsteen populates the album with various characters but there’s a bit of his DNA embedded in all of them[/caption]

On the wistful, cinematic Chasin’ Wild Horses, he’s “up on the Montana line” in search of equine gold against a gorgeous backdrop of pedal steel and strings.

There’s an airy feel to Sundown, probably named after a small, isolated town in West Texas which Springsteen decides “ain’t the kind of place you want to be on your own”.

Place names aside, there are two songs on Western Stars which I believe qualify as stone-cold Springsteen masterpieces . . .  the title track and the long, deeply evocative finale Moonlight Hotel.

The former is the most beautiful realisation of his experiments with this lush, orchestrated sound and allied to some of the most startling imagery such as “a coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ’cross my veranda at night”.

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Springsteen’s voice is still the most striking instrument on the album[/caption]

As for his depiction of a crumbling motel, you can practically touch the peeling wallpaper and smell the musty sheets. “Now the pool’s filled with empty,” sings a resigned Springsteen. “Got dandelions growin’ up through the concrete.”

The singer’s battle with depression is well-documented in his candid autobiography Born To Run but maybe one of these new songs is a clue to his quest for inner peace.

Hello Sunshine, the album’s first single, bears most resemblance to the radio-friendly Sixties country-pop of Campbell and his peers like Marty Robbins and Roger Miller.

When Springsteen intones “hello sunshine, won’t you stay”, it’s as if he’s allowed the California sun to touch his skin and he never wants it to stop.

The album also has room for bleak and moody in the shape of Stones, about a relationship ruined by lies, and more lost love, despite its breezy setting, on There Goes My Miracle.

And there you have it, Springsteen’s long-distance road trip to bold new sonic horizons, steeped in tradition but strikingly distinct all the same.

Next up is a promised E Street album and tour but, for now, The Boss is sitting by a campfire looking up at Western Stars.

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

★★★★

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

8. Sundown

9. Somewhere North Of Nashville
10. Stones

11. There Goes My Miracle

12. Hello Sunshine

13. Moonlight Motel

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