An American Masterpiece: Inside Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’
The mythical West of Bruce Springsteen’s early years opens the door to a musical panorama of vistas and ponderosas both majestic and intimate. The characters in many of these songs are cut from the familiar Springsteen cloth of Searchers and Seekers --searching and seeking life and love and redemption on highways, byways, train stations and motels and the everyday places that people live their lives.
With the release of Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen cements his legacy as one of the all-time greats yet again. An artist who is not afraid to push a couple of boundaries or two aside or completely out the way. How do you follow the runaway success of The Broadway Show.. of The Best Seller? You swing into a completely new sonic genre. A place where stories unfold, with a lush musical soundtrack that vividly colors the scenery, without ever running it over.
This is a beautiful album and recording. It’s a bold statement, hinged on a bold vision. It’s an American masterpiece.
Announcing the release of the album Springsteen called it a “jewel box of a record” and is it ever. It’s a sonic high water mark, with instrumentation and orchestration that’s never been heard before on one of his records. Ron Aniello produces (with Bruce) for the third time, and weaves together a glorious, um, jewel box of sounds. The string fills, the crescendos, the piano parts, the pedal steel are all right on time and never in the way. These are comfort sounds, like the ones that came out of my family’s kitchen counter radio in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
I loved having the three songs come out in advance the way that they did. “Hello Sunshine” laid the foundation, “There Goes My Miracle” showed us how crucial the string performances/arrangements are to this album, and “Tucson Train” was like a comfortable old friend arriving in the station right on time. Hearing these songs in the context of the album drives home the point about just how good they are. And none of the three come close to sounding the same.
The album opens with “Hitch Hikin,’” and the first time I heard it I said “Huck Finn” out loud. There’s not a raft in sight for this throwback traveler, but the thumb will suffice and there’s plenty of opportunities to explore and stay one step ahead of whatever demons or obligations. Followed by “The Wayfarer,” the album gets out of the gate by letting us know that the highway is (still) alive tonight, as these characters are on the move, looking for answers that never really come. “The Wayfarer” is one of the songs that Patti Scialfa did the vocal arrangements for, and it all comes together perfectly. Horns! Strings! Vocalists! I’m a big fan of both of these songs.
“Sleepy Joe’s Café” is a whimsy and fun night out, with E Street’s Charlie Giordano vamping it up on his accordion. “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” has (rightfully) been compared to “The Wrestler” given the precision and specificness of the character. It’s a beautiful arrangement and another winner. When we heard “There Goes My Miracle” we were reintroduced to Bruce’s vocal reach. His voice also soars on “Sundown,” which matches the crescendo of the strings without straining. More often than not, it is my favorite song on the album.
“Chasin’ Wild Horses,” “Stones” (‘I wake up in the morning with stones in my mouth’) and especially “Somewhere North Of Nashville” are pure heartbreak. Speaking of heartbreak hotel, the album concludes with “Moonlight Motel (‘now the pool’s filled with empty’), and a bottle of Jack in a paper bag is all that’s left.
The faded B-movie actor/cowboy in the album’s title cut is the ultimate survivor/hero/anti-hero of this collection of songs. He’s remembered, sure. He’s resilient. He’s at least a little bit optimistic (well he is in a Bruce Springsteen song).
‘Hell, these days there ain’t no more, now there’s just again
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again’
Springsteen solo albums are a tricky business. None of them are remotely similar, yet the ties that bind remain constant. Complicated characters in complicated relationships and always moving moving moving. Whether it’s Bruce alone in his bedroom (“Nebraska”) or in his garage studio (“Tunnel Of Love”) or with sparse songs and scaled down accompaniment (“The Ghost Of Tom Joad” “Devils & Dust”), we’re invited behind the curtain, not all the way, mind you—but far enough to get another glimpse (or thirteen) into the man’s very heart and soul. And in the end, that’s plenty more than enough.