Full disclaimer: I cannot be fully objective re: Mr. Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been a fan since 1984, and he’s responsible for turning me on to many of the artists I listen to today (I’m sure I’m not the only Americana fan who can say this). So, in the same week that we celebrated the 35th(!) anniversary of the release of Born In The U.S.A., listening to his new album for the purposes of writing this review was surreal for this teen of the 80s. And, while Western Stars sounds nothing like U.S.A. (or any other Bruce album), there are some stunningly gorgeous moments on this record.
Bruce, sans E Street Band, promised a new sound for this release, and he dipped all the way back to the early 70s for it. Not the same 70s from his own East Coast, hyper-verbose first two albums, but a lusher, more relaxed California country vibe, as if the Springsteen we know had grown up out west, surrounded by dusty saloons and skydomed highways instead of seaside bars and suburban streets. The change in setting gives the tunes more room to stretch themselves out. “Hitch Hikin’” has a young man thumbing his way down the road, without a destination in mind, almost as if his goal is movement and meeting new folks along the way: “Family man gives me a ride/Got his pregnant Sally by his side.” He’s thankful for both the lift and the adventure while inspiring new music for himself: “Got what I can carry and my song.”
The characters found in Western Stars are different, too. Instead of factory workers and bar band leaders, we have, on the title track, a washed-up actor whose struggles are more internal and self-induced than those of a typical Bruce protagonist: “On the set, the makeup girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin.” But the unparalleled Springsteen imagery is still there, just transferred to the Hollywood Hills: “A coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth skitters ’cross my veranda in the night.” As the actor retreats to the few loves he has left, ridin’ horses and tellin’ tales in the desert, strings and brass swell as they would in an old cowboy flick when the character catches a look at a wide-open vista. In the more subdued “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”, which floats mainly on acoustic guitar, piano and some well-placed pedal steel, the titular narrator is someone who’s never paused in life: “At nine, I climbed high into the boughs of our neighborhood’s tallest tree/I don’t remember the fear, just the breeze.” There’s also a quick callback to 1975’s “Jungleland” (the Springsteen tune which might fit best on this record), where the stuntman recalls a time when he and a B-actress “made our stand of it.”
In addition to the setting, two other facets of Western Stars are quite striking. The first is the instrumentation. The E-Street Band is large by rock ‘n’ roll standards, but its members, in any incarnation, number in the single digits. Western Stars, on the other hand, lists over 50 musicians in its credits, including the familiar – Patti Scialfa (vocals), Soozie Tyrell (violin and background vocals), and David Sancious (piano and keys) – as well as lap and pedal steel, brass and woodwinds, and two separate string sections. It’s a lot, but Bruce wanted a sound to fill up those wide-open western spaces, and he’s found it.
The other departure from the norm here is Springsteen’s voice. It’s mellow. It’s smooth. In places, he almost croons. It’s an entirely different persona for him, and it, along with the musical arrangements, helps shape the songs, even when he writes about more familiar, Bruce-ian topics. The twang in his voice adds to the melancholy of “Hello Sunshine”, an ironically-titled song which reflects Springsteen’s self-documented depression. “Somewhere North of Nashville” rides on acoustic guitar, pedal steel and Springsteen’s spare, echoey vocals while telling of the less triumphant part of playing music: “Came into town with a pocketful of songs/I made the rounds/But I didn’t last long.” No bombastic anthems about record companies giving “a big advance” on this record – the times have changed, and Bruce knows it. Just as he was never a factory worker or a ruined GI, he hasn’t had to scramble to survive after the collapse of the music business he grew up with, but he can still empathize, and he can still write about it, and he can still make it universal. It’s the gift that he, like no other before or since, has always possessed.
Western Stars was produced by Ron Aniello with Bruce Springsteen. The album was engineered by Rob Lebret, Ross Petersen, Toby Scott, and Aniello, recorded primarily at Stone Hill Studio in New Jersey, mixed by Tom Elmhirst at Electric Lady Studios in New York and mastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine.