By Jeff Burger
On first listen, Western Stars sounds like nothing Bruce Springsteen has ever done before. On second listen, though, you start to hear connections to the catalog. And by the third listen, you’re probably in love. Springsteen’s 19th album—his first studio release since 2014 and his first record of all-new original material since 2012’s Wrecking Ball—is one of his finest works, which is saying plenty.
What makes the 51-minute, 13-track solo album initially seem like a departure from form is that it’s neither a rock record, like most of its predecessors, nor a folk outing, like Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. Instead, this is strings-laden pop, complete with French horns, a flute, a bassoon, and an oboe—less reminiscent of the aforementioned genres than of late 1960s work such as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Glen Campbell’s Jimmy Webb interpretations, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. But when you think about it, you realize that Springsteen has flirted with this turf before, in some of the tracks on The Rising, High Hopes, Lucky Town, and Human Touch; in Working on a Dream’s “Kingdom of Days” and Greatest Hits’ “Secret Garden”; and especially in Magic’s under-appreciated (albeit Grammy-winning) masterpiece, “The Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which he has called “one of my favorite songs.”
The lyrics, though less positive than those in many of Springsteen’s songs, aren’t really a departure at all; they’re full of the lost souls, cars, and highways that have always populated his work. Most of the characters who inhabit these first-person tales are struggling and many are on the road, seemingly rooted to nothing. The album begins with a song called “Hitch Hikin’,” whose first words are “Thumb stuck out as I go / I’m just travelin’ up the road / Maps don’t do much for me, friend / I follow the weather and the wind.” Up next is “The Wayfarer,” in which Bruce sings, “I drift from town to town / When everyone’s asleep and the midnight bells sound.”
Traveling or not, most all of Springsteen’s new protagonists seem to be down on their luck. In one song, an aging stuntman proclaims, “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone.” In the title track (which concerns stars in Hollywood, not in the sky), a faded actor relies on shots of gin and Viagra to get by. In another number, a failed songwriter is “out on this highway / With a bone cold chill” and lies “awake in the middle of the night / Makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”
There’s more: in “Sundown,” the singer is “twenty-five hundred miles from where I wanna be,” while in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the protagonist has run off to the Montana line, where he labors from sunup to sundown, tries to forget someone left behind, and makes sure “I work till I’m so damn tired / Way too tired to think.”
Of course, a song needn’t be happy to sound great. And every number on this disc is ear candy, thanks partly to indelible melodies and to the moody, perfectly attuned instrumentation, which features string and brass sections; such longtime cohorts as David Sancious, Soozie Tyrell, and Charlie Giordano; and Springsteen himself on everything from guitar, glockenspiel, and synth strings to celeste, organ, and banjo. Patti Scialfa provides backup vocals. And speaking of vocals, Springsteen’s evidence more range on Western Stars than he typically shows and even some falsetto on “There Goes My Miracle.”
And it’s not all gloom and doom. True, the protagonist in “Tucson Train” got “tired of the pills and the rain” in ’Frisco and left town after breaking up with his girlfriend “over nothing.” But now they’ve apparently reconciled, she’s coming to meet him, and, Springsteen sings, “I’ll wait all God’s creation, just to show her a man can change.” Even more upbeat—both musically and lyrically—is “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” which limns a guy who came home from World War II, got married, and got lucky when he bought land where a highway was subsequently built, allowing his cafe to thrive. The place may be sleepy but the song—whose infectious beat recalls Tracks’ “Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own”—sure isn’t.
While most of these numbers explore themes that relate in some way to Springsteen’s life, they all also sound like products of his imagination. The sole exception is “Hello Sunshine,” the album’s first single, which seems wholly in sync with the tales of depression and alienation in Bruce’s gripping 2016 memoir, Born to Run. “You know I always liked my walking shoes,” he sings, “But you can get a little too fond of the blues / You walk too far, you walk away / Hello sunshine, won’t you stay.” And later: “You know I always loved a lonely town / Those empty streets, no one around / You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way / Hello sunshine, won’t you stay.”
If you’ve applauded most of the previous twists and turns in Springsteen’s career, you’re probably going to love this album as well. But if you’d rather rock, don’t worry: a new tour with the E Street Band is in the works, and word also has it that Bruce has already written music for a new record with the group.
Chris Stamey and the ModRec Orchestra, New Songs for the 20th Century. When I first saw the title of this two-CD album, I thought the number might be a typo—either that or perhaps someone didn’t realize we’re now in the 21st century. Nope. Like such artists as Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart, Chris Stamey is turning his attention to the Great American Songbook, which in the last century produced classics by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Kahn, Rodgers & Hart, and Cole Porter. But unlike Dylan and Stewart, Stamey (who is known for his production work and for his musicianship in groups like the dBs, which he cofounded) isn’t covering their material; he’s written his own, in a similar style—hence the word “new” in the title. Consider yourself forewarned: this orchestrated, jazz-inflected music doesn’t issue from the same universe as Stamey’s earlier work, so fans of his rock material may or may not consider it their cup of tea. That said, I think it’s terrific: he has penned a batch of beautiful lyrics and melodies, and the performances here are uniformly fine. Stamey deserves a lot of the credit—he wrote, arranged, mixed, and produced everything—but this is hardly a one-man show: he rounded up a large group of talented players for his project, including dBs cofounder Peter Holsapple, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Marshall Crenshaw, and Branford Marsalis, to name a few.
Cat Stevens, The Early Broadcasts. Cat Stevens made some fine pop/rock-flavored folk records in the years before he found religion, changed his named to Yusuf Islam, and walked away from the music business for nearly three decades. You’ll find live versions of some of the best of that work on this 22-track CD, which collects four performances from a November 1970 French TV broadcast, eight from a June 1971 Los Angeles FM radio broadcast, and 10 from a BBC broadcast from November 1971. The latter came right after the release of Stevens’s platinum-certified fourth LP, Teaser & the Firecat, which is represented here by “Changes IV,” “”How Can I Tell You,” “Tuesday’s Dead,” and “Moonshadow” (though not by its biggest hits, “Morning Has Broken” and “Peace Train”). Also on the bill are such early numbers as “I Love My Dog,” “Lady D’Arbanville,” “Maybe You’re Right,” and “Katmandu,” plus most of the songs from Tea for the Tillerman, Stevens’s 1970 breakthrough album, including “Where Do the Children Play?,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Wild World,” “Miles from Nowhere,” “Longer Boats,” “Into White,” “On the Road to Find Out,” and “Father and Son.” Stevens returned to music-making in 2006 and has since produced some notable music but this excellent material makes you wonder how much more he could have accomplished if he hadn’t gone away for so long.
Savoy Brown, City Night. Savoy Brown has certainly been through a lot of changes since guitarist Kim Simmonds and harmonica player John O’Leary formed the group in London in 1965: in the more than half a century and 40 albums since then, the group has served as a revolving door for a dizzying list of musicians—about 50 by my count. But two things have remained constant: Kim Simmons has been the leader in every lineup, and the music has displayed a consistent devotion to raw, guitar-based blues-rock. Today, the group is a trio, with a bassist and drummer accompanying Simmonds, who provides the vocals and the star of the show: consummate, red-hot guitar work. City Night—which Simmonds produced and wrote, blazes no new trails, but if you’re already a fan, you won’t be disappointed.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.