Set up against romantic portrayals of the American Southwest, Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars could not seem more remote to me and my generation if it tried. I am no corn-bred cowboy typing away in a room at Trinity College, Oxford. Nor are there any country musicians tuning up their banjos down at Park End. The world in which we find Springsteen seems old, shabby, seedy, and as old-timey American as a rusted tractor engine in a cornfield. But as much as we plucky youths on the other side of the pond might want to believe we have reinvented ourselves and the world around us, Bruce knows that there remain some unchanging fundamentals of living. The album’s protagonists have stumbled their way through what we ourselves will surely face – a career, a love-life, an old age. The characters are on the other side of their prime, slowed by age and experience, now regaling the listener with their regrets and the pangs of irretrievable joy and simplicity that nostalgia always brings. Longing for the past is central to the album which sweetly echoes country music and 70s California pop. Western Stars is, both lyrically and musically, rooted in the past without feeling outdated.
It was a bold play for Springsteen to release a solo album that sounds more like Glen Campbell’s laid-back classics (‘Wichita Lineman’, for instance) than his signature hot and heavy brand of rock’n’roll. Disciples of ‘The Boss’ will understand that it is unusual to find Bruce as the conductor of an orchestra, rather than the brash frontman of the E Street Band. Whilst he may not be reaching such innovative heights as Billie Eilish, I think it is fair to say that Springsteen is experimenting by taking this detour from his trademark sound. The results are strikingly effective. Tracks such as the eponymous ‘Western Stars’ and ‘The Wayfarer’ are given the space to let instrumentals create their own imagery: the soaring strings paint landscapes that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford Western. Rich orchestral arrangements lend the songs a sense of cinematic movement across the sweeping red rock plains of Arizona and New Mexico.
The new sound does not come without some precedent in Springsteen’s solo career. The pedal steel on ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ is not totally alien to a song like ‘Long Time Comin’ from the 2005 solo album Devils & Dust. Western Stars is part of Bruce’s long-term love affair with country music, and his boyish love of the Western tradition. One glance at the publicity campaign for the release of the album tells us all we need to know – Bruce wants to be a cowboy. There he is, posing on the hood of an El Camino, or donning a Stetson, or wandering down a dirt road. Though no authentic redneck himself, hailing from the blue-collar industrial town of Freehold, New Jersey, part of the joy of the album is found in hearing the earnest rocker engage in giddy childish fantasy.
Though taking a new stylistic tack, Bruce’s approach to song-writing remains very much the same. We continue to find pleasure in simple but catchy refrains and melodies, and, as ever, the emphasis is on storytelling. ‘Hitch Hikin’’ is a testament to his talent for fashioning a narrative as we follow the hitchhiker, much like the lyricist, butting in and out of the lives of drivers and their dramas. ‘The Boss’ also retains his mantle as the working man’s hero, empathising with the patrons of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’ who ‘feel the work week slip away’ after taking that first drink on a Friday night. Nor does Springsteen shy away from social commentary in ‘Somewhere North of Nashville’ or ‘Western Stars’, offering his hot take on the music industry in Nashville and the film industry in Hollywood respectively. It is hard not to see ‘Western Stars’ and Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as cut from the same cloth, placing the has-been actor centre-stage with just the right blend of pathos and glamour. It is not all perfect in paradise, and Springsteen should know.
The has-been protagonist seems all too prominent on the album. From the aging stuntman in ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’ to the stale motel in ‘Moonlight Motel’, the idea of declining value pervades Western Stars. You cannot help but imagine this anxiety weighing on Bruce’s own mind as he wrestles with the pressure of a highly successful career whose shadow he must avoid in order to stay relevant. Thankfully, I think this anxiety is vain. This album deserves its place among the ranks of The River and Born In The USA, and what is more, as a thematically and musically unified work, it merits that the listener take the run-time of 50 minutes to listen to the track listing in its entirety. As is characteristic of Springsteen, Western Stars offers valuable reflections on human life, from the banal to the exceptional, dressed attractively in American aestheticism. Though the world portrayed here may seem at odds with our own, I must ask: how different can we say our lives are, or will be?