Bruce Springsteen is an undeniable legend of rock and roll from Long Branch, New Jersey. His reputation precedes him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time and the man who carried the blue collar Americana style through the 1980’s when the majority of rock music had turned toward a cocaine fueled, long haired style of metal which didn’t carry nearly the lyrical substance of the earlier days of the genre. Springsteen found breakthrough success in 1975 with his third LP, Born to Run and landed his first number one with 1980’s double album, The River. In total, The Boss has now released 19 studio albums nine of which have peaked at number one and 15 of which have gone platinum or better. As he approaches his 70’s, he shows no signs of slowing down, dropping his newest record, Western Stars over the weekend.
From the first moments of the album, it becomes abundantly clear that Springsteen’s ear for melody is still absolutely in tact. Cuts like the opener, “Hitch Hiker,” and “Tucson Train,” feature fantastic hooks and instrumental passages that are absolutely infectious. It’s nothing short of astounding that, after a nearly fifty year career, the boss can still write a melody that feels fresh and sticks in the mind, but he does it over and over again on this album.
Beyond this, the lyrics on this project are also quite impressive. He makes quite an effort here to tell very unique stories and, for the most part, he succeeds. The title track follows an aging actor as he longs for his younger days and meets with fans everywhere he goes, also playing cleverly with the title of the track and album as referring to both the night sky in the West and the main character on the track who once stared in Western films. “Somewhere North of Nashville,” is also excellent, examining the cost of pouring one’s heart and soul into a song and the feeling of loneliness that comes with its success.
In terms of his vocal performance, Bruce’s age does show, but he uses the gruff tone to his advantage. His voice has always been rather strained, but on the softer cuts like the closer, “Moonlight Motel,” there’s a soft tenderness that has rarely been seen in his earlier work. He also brings extraordinary power to perhaps my favorite track on the album, “There Goes My Miracle.”
Despite all this hard work from the boss, the record’s true highlight comes in the instrumentation. This begins with a daring variety of chord progressions which pop up all over the tracklist. Songs like “Drive Fast,” and “Sundown,” while genuinely enjoyable in their own rights, stand out all the more thanks to surprising and dynamic chord changes that keep a listener guessing throughout.
Additionally, there are a handful of interesting percussion choices that are made on some of the more upbeat tracks. “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” which is essentially a throwback to Springsteen’s 80’s prime, has an almost tropical feel while a later song like “Hello Sunshine,” benefits from a less noticeable but still well performed and mixed drum kit.
Without a doubt, however, this album lives and dies by the simply tremendous instrumental pallet which graces every single cut. A few of my favorites include the bombastic horn section on “Wayfarer,” and the heartbreaking strings on “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” but nearly every track is driven by a massive collection of instruments, each with fascinating melodies to follow.
It seems obvious that Western Stars’ purpose is to borrow sentimentally from the sweeping, orchestral soundtracks of American Westerns and golden age country music, and to that end, it succeeds in nearly every way possible. Each song is a new adventure and the fifty minute runtime flies by fast enough to leave you wanting more. It’s one of my favorite Springsteen projects, not only in recent years, but of all time.
Put simply Western Stars is yet another example of why Bruce Springsteen is known as The Boss.
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