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2023/4 Albums Thing 350 - Bruce Springsteen “Western Stars”

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Bruce Springsteen released his first album in 1973. About how many artists could you say that 46 years after their debut they released what could arguably be their best album ? 2019’s “Western Stars” is that good !

It was Bruce Springsteen’s first album of completely new, original material since “Wrecking Ball” 7 years previously, much of it written and recorded before “Wrecking Ball”. Hugely influenced by the orchestral pop coming from Southern California in the late 60’s and early 70’s, music by the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach. It’s a record full of characters and cinematic arrangements of songs about highways, trains, cars, horses and deserts (we’ve been here before haven’t we ?). I’ve said before that Bruce Springsteen’s music has something of the cinema about it, whether that be the widescreen technicolour of “Born To Run” or the John Ford, ’40’s style Black & White-ness of “Nebraska” and “…Tom Joad”. “Western Stars” takes the imagery of the wide-open country of America he began to incorporate on “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” and developed through to “Devils & Dust” and creates the sound of, well, it sounds like the image on its cover, it sounds like wild horses and the mountains on the horizon that you never seem to reach, like the endless skies and the freedom that beautiful looking horse possibly represents.

These are songs as scenes, small vignettes focussing on a particular person or story or feeling. We start with the writer himself with his “Thumb stuck out as I go, I’m just travelling up the road…”. Springsteen hitch-hiked a lot as young man he has told us and here are some of the characters he encountered on his travels. Each time he jumps into a new ride the arrangement builds, from voice, guitar and banjo at the start, growing to a hypnotic orchestral accompaniment, something added each time a new ride is hitched and a new person met, until the fade. We’ve begun our journey, let’s see who we find along the way.

“Western Stars” takes us out of the cities into “America” and introduces us to a host of characters that inhabit that huge landscape. It’s conceivable that “The Wayfarer” is the same character as our hitch-hiker, but where I see the hitch-hiker as someone using that as a form of public transport he needs to travel between two spots day to day (Springsteen has said that he “hitchhiked the twenty miles from Freehold to Manasquan and back almost every day” in the mid 60’s), “The Wayfarer” is much more widely travelled, moving between different towns, looking for something. It would seem that he once had it (“You start out slow in a sweet little bungalow, Something two can call home”) and somehow lost it (“Then rain comes fallin’, The blues come calling, and you're left with a heart of stone”) and now he’s looking for whatever “it” is (“Where are you now”). 

Then we shift our mode of transport from the road to the railway. “Tucson Train” puts us in Arizona with a guy who started out like “The Wayfarer” but, after running, has realised what matters, he’s made the effort to change and now “my baby's coming in on the Tucson train”, what was lost is returning to him. Like “The Wayfarer” the Blues came calling but he’s worked to make things better. 

“Western Stars” (the song), and I’m sorry to labour the point but, this is a movie in 4 and a half minutes. If you want to imagine what this song sounds like then take a look at the cover image and animate it. Springsteen has had a fascination with “the west” for a long time and we’ve alluded to it in places. From his Mom reading him “Brave Cowboy Bill” as a kid to songs as far back as the “Promised Land” and “Badlands” and onto the themes and sounds of “Nebraska”, “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”, “Devils & Dust” and "Outlaw Pete". All that coalesces on “Western Stars” (the album) and particularly in “Western Stars” (the song). Lines like “Here's to the cowboys, and the riders in the whirlwind” and “Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds” describe the scene beautifully, but…these scenes are just that, pieces of a movie. Our storyteller is an actor. He tells us he’s getting older; he’s on set where the make up girl brings him a “pick-me-up”;  a girl at the bar thinks she remembers him “from that commercial with the credit card”; he tells us he was once shot by John Wayne and that scene has bought him a lot of drinks, he’s that “famous”. It’s a song about the stars in the West and the stars in the Westerns, it’s a song about ageing (“Hell, these days there ain't no more, now there's just again”) and time passed, a theme that is becoming more important in Springsteen’s songs.

We’ll skip over “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe”…I don’t like it, let’s leave it at that. Once we’re past that we meet another character in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”. He could be the guy from “Western Stars” (the song), more likely the stuntman he worked alongside. He tells us about his injuries (“I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone”), how since he was a kid he didn’t feel the fear (“I was looking for anything, any kind of drug to lift me up off this ground”), he uses the danger like a drug to make him feel alive. But then he meets her, on set and they “Figured maybe together we could get the broken pieces to fit”. They both have their problems but ones can help soothe the others…maybe.

Those last 3 songs (“The Wayfarer”, “Western Stars” and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”) sit in a sumptuous musical setting, if that’s a word you can use to describe music. They have sweeping, floating (like the clouds on the cover) orchestral strings with horns and the occasional twangy Duane Eddy guitar. Three beautiful, beautiful songs.

The second half of “Western Stars” begins with “Chasin’ Wild Horses”. It’s a song of regret, of trying to banish your mistakes from memory. Lap steels moan in the background before being joined by a picked Banjo before the music swells again as the strings join in. It’s a gentle but vast arrangement that segues seamlessly in to next song “Sundown” which picks up the pace a little. It perfectly mirrors the sound of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”, he even sings about the “county line”, paraphrasing the “line man for the county”. We’re still dealing with with loss and regret but this may be the best pop tune on the album.

“Somewhere North Of Nashville” is the shortest song Springsteen has ever released on a studio album, clocking in at just 1 minute 52 seconds. “I wrote this song quickly at the kitchen table one morning…It’s just about being lost on the highway of life. Lost is something I’m good at writing about” he explained.

When I first heard “Stones” I was bowled over. It’s about lies and the damage they can do to a relationship, any relationship. As he says in the filmed intro to the song, “Faith, hope, trust…all those things that are hard to come by. That’s what grows your garden of love”. But lies will grow in that garden like weeds and once they take over all that’s left are stones. Musically it incorporates all the elements we’ve met so far but lyrically, in this laid back, placid arrangement it’s brutal “The dirt-brown winter field, a thousand black crows cover the ground, You say those are only the lies you've told me”. It’s an absolute standout on this album and is right up there with Bruce’s very best songs.

“There Goes My Miracle” and “Hello Sunshine” introduce some melodic (sunshine) pop levity after “Stones” weightier themes. Both were issued as (the first two) singles from “Western Stars” and serve that purpose well, introducing the sound of this album and being commercial enough to catch the ear of casual listeners. “There Goes My Miracle” sees a man being left behind, unusually for this record where many songs feature characters looking back. “Hello Sunshine” is literally the sun breaking through after a storm. Following an albums worth of looking back, mistakes, lies, regret we get a song that opens on “Had enough of heartbreak and pain” and that followed by “Hello sunshine, won't you stay” and finally the sound of Bruce Sprinsteen humming, yes HUMMING an entire verse. We all do it, you’re wrapped up in something else but you’re content and then you find yourself humming a tune, things are OK. I hope, after his years of struggle with his own being, that’s what this songs represents for The Boss.

Finally “Moonlight Motel” is a farewell to times passed, to a lover, to a family lost, whether because of the stones we heard about earlier or, well you decide…”I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag, Poured one for me and one for you as well, Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot, To the Moonlight Motel”.

Springsteen has described “Western Stars” as a “jewel box of a record”. If by that he meant to convey that it is filled with gems then he described it himself better than I ever could. I haven’t done too many track-by-track dissections of albums while I’ve been writing these pieces but I thought “Western Stars” deserved that. It sounds like nothing else in Springsteen’s catalogue, all of these songs have only ever been played live once, as you’ll soon find out, and in the 5 years since its release he’s never felt tempted to perform any of them with the E Street Band.

“Western Stars” may very well be Bruce Springsteen’s best album. Do I really think that ? Well I own two copies of it (it feeds my coloured vinyl addiction, two different shades of blue (sky and navy) splatter vinyl). Do I think it’s his best ? Sometimes…

Stones - https://youtu.be/0u2WuD_321E?si=FCebH1tRDl-azzq8

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