A look inside the LP being hailed as The Boss’s best since Magic
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Western Stars
Label: Columbia Records
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
“I’m on intimate terms with this prairie.” – Austin in Sam Shepard’s True West
In his memoir Born to Run and its live companion piece Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen describes his first drive cross-country, when he was 21 years old. That would place that journey around 1970, ’71. Let’s pretend that at the end of the trip he found himself in sunny Southern California (not “down San Diego way,” but in Los Angeles) and decided to hang around there, writing songs, playing acoustic gigs, and by ’73 was getting some cuts on Linda Ronstadt albums, generating buzz as a solo performer from shows at the Troubadour, and the record labels started showing interest, resulting in a deal with Asylum, or Reprise.
Springsteen’s L.A. debut album released that year, let’s call it Greetings from Griffith Park, Ca., might’ve sounded something like his new Western Stars. When he began hinting about this solo project a few years back, Springsteen referenced the SoCal sound of the late ’60s, specifically Glen Campbell’s records of Jimmy Webb songs, and on Western Stars you can hear him aiming at the sweepingly melancholy vibe of “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” In Dylan Jones’s upcoming book The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Great Unfinished Song, Springsteen says about Campbell’s singing, “It was simple on the surface but there was a lot of emotion underneath.”
Reviewers have been scrambling to play spot-the-musical-influences on Western Stars, and that’s fun to do. I hear some Johnny Rivers with the Wrecking Crew and Marty Paich’s strings lurking in the corners; Waylon Jennings’s version of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” (many people have pointed out how much “Hello Sunshine” resembles that song); the string arrangements Nick DeCaro did on Reprise albums for Gordon Lightfoot (Springsteen even has a song called “Sundown,” like Lightfoot’s big hit from ’74), Arlo Guthrie and Randy Newman, or the ones Bergen White charted for Tony Joe White; the hyper-literate, vivid Americana of Mickey Newbury. What a cool game! Nilsson! Jim Croce!
But Western Stars isn’t just evocative of the California sound of the early ’70s; it has, underneath its cinematic strings, the downbeat feeling of the movies that were coming out in 1973, populated by characters who couldn’t really be called heroes: Badlands (of course), Charlie Varrick, High Plains Drifter, Kid Blue, The Last American Hero (which Springsteen referenced on The River’s “Cadillac Ranch”), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Scarecrow, Walking Tall. (In ‘73, Springsteen’s not-yet-manager Jon Landau was reviewing films—including some on this list—for Rolling Stone.) Those Watergate-era films, road movies, neo-Westerns, stories of outcasts and revenge-seekers, inform the landscape of Western Stars. On the title track, Springsteen reaches back a bit further: “Here’s to the cowboys, riders in the whirlwind” (see: Ride in the Whirlwind, Monte Hellman’s existential black-and-white western from 1966, starring a pre–Easy Rider Jack Nicholson). Sometimes Western Stars feels like an unmade film with Michael Sarrazin, Barbara Hershey, and Warren Oates.
Oh, I haven’t mentioned how good this album is, how memorable many of its lines are. “Fingernail moon in a twilight sky/Ridin’ high grass of the switchback”: his imagery is as crisp and clean as his fictional Montana sky. “Boarded up and gone like an old summer song.” It’s Springsteen’s best album, by far, since Magic (2007), and I already prefer it to the much-revered (in some quarters) The Rising. For one thing, it isn’t carrying the burden of expectations of The Rising (“We need you now!” someone supposedly shouted at Bruce in the street after 9/11, and can you conceive of the pressure? Would anyone have yelled that at Billy Joel?), and it isn’t bearing the heavy sonic weight of Brendan O’Brien’s production. Western Stars feels more open. These tracks have been in the works for some time; he mentioned the project in interviews around the time of the autobiography, but it had to wait until the whole Born to Run/Springsteen on Broadway phase was over. Maybe, by that point, he’d tired of his own narrative voice and his own story and got down to shaping others. These songs are all in the first person, but that person isn’t Bruce Springsteen. They’re hitchhikers and wayfarers (aren’t they kind of the same thing?), stuntmen and bit players. They’re like the characters in the early ’70s novels by Larry McMurtry (Moving On and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers), and I wonder how Springsteen missed out on writing a song about a rodeo cowboy.
Springsteen is also liberated musically. He didn’t have to consider, as he did with the woeful Working on a Dream and the clunky, well-meaning Wrecking Ball, how the songs would translate in the context of a live show with the E Street Band. You can’t imagine them schlepping around a big string section to recreate these songs, and there wouldn’t be anything at all for Jake Clemons to do, and even Max Weinberg would be fiddling his thumbs for a big chunk of the set. No doubt a few of these tracks will find their way into the possible 2020 tour (please, not “There Goes My Miracle” and “Sleepy Joe’s Café”; we don’t need him straining to be Del Shannon, or the band pretending to have fun on a Jay and the Americans knockoff), and if “Hello Sunshine” gets to replace “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” all the better.
Western Stars suggests an America divorced from this moment in history. The only cultural reference is to John Wayne (in ’73 he was doing junk like The Train Robbers), and the one allusion that nudges the album into the late 20th century is to a blue pill for ED. Otherwise, the album would have sat pretty solidly in the Nixon era. For anyone who expected Springsteen to be a beacon of hope that the country will get through this current crisis the way it did through Watergate and 9/11, or who wanted him to draw stark pictures of our heroes and villains, Western Stars may feel slight, or like a challenge he gave himself to complete a genre exercise. But if Darkness on the Edge of Town was Springsteen’s film noir, this album is his bleak road movie, his characters nursing drinks, recalling old loves and old wounds. By the time we end up at the final track, looking at the remnants of a beaten-down motel, we’ve been along on one of Springsteen’s most rewarding rides.