Release Date: Jun 14, 2019
Record label: Columbia
Between October 2017 and December last year, Bruce Springsteen took what essentially amounted to a day job, clocking in at the Walter Kerr Theatre on West 48th Street in midtown Manhattan. Despite the high visibility of a 236-performance residency, during which he evocatively leafed through his back pages and punctuated familiar songs with revealing and eloquent anecdotes, the man himself gave very few interviews to a media craving insight pertaining to the hottest ticket in town. Consequently, it was left to others to ponder where next for this icon, this articulate chronicler of the American Condition, this unswerving blue-collar champion.
Every so often, Bruce Springsteen deviates from his rock-oriented records to pursue mellow, quieter projects. He's been consistent at it, usually followed by more vigorous statements—2005's acoustic-heavy Devils and Dust followed 2002's bootstrapping The Rising, 1995's lean, story-driven The Ghost of Tom Joad followed the smooth, album-oriented pop-rock of 1992's Human Touch. The Jersey rock legend repeats this cycle every decade, revealing aspects of American life through human stories that read like folklore and legend.
In a 1984 interview that aired on MTV, Bruce Springsteen told the network's Mark Goodman, "I'd like to get more records out. I'd like to get more, different kinds of records out." At that stage of Springsteen's career, as his blockbuster album Born in the U.S.A. was projecting him to the highest echelon of rock stardom, he already was known as an astonishingly prolific songwriter and recording artist who gave away hits ("Because the Night," "Fire," "This Little Girl") to other artists but also one who released albums with less frequency than peers such as Bob Dylan, Prince, and Elvis Costello.
Western Stars is a title that suggests wide-open, cinematic vistas, music made for the outer reaches of a widescreen. Such sweeping ambition isn't necessarily alien to Bruce Springsteen, a rocker who designed his self-styled 1975 breakthrough as a larger-than-life hybrid of AM pop and FM album rock profundity -- a daring fusion that eventually favored the latter, perhaps because it was easier for the E-Street Band to fill arenas with cranked amps and big riffs. Western Stars contains none of that rabble rousing.
The Boss buckles up for his cowboy album, taking us in countless fascinating directions. It's the most charming and enjoyable he's sounded in quite some time Bruce Springsteen may well have picked the perfect time for his cowboy album. The American archetype is getting a bit of a re-evaluation in pop culture right now, as modern artists channel the figure's connotations and breathe new life into it.
The voices in Western Stars are old and restless, lost and wandering. On the title track, Bruce Springsteen sings from the perspective of an actor who once worked with John Wayne but now mostly does commercials--credit cards, Viagra. Elsewhere, we meet a stuntman whose body has been destroyed by the job, a lonely widower idling in his old parking spot, and a failed country songwriter wondering if any of the sacrifices he made in his youth were worth it.
Bruce Springsteen's honorific as "The Boss" has always been a bit funny, and it's one he's only begrudgingly accepted. You don't have to comb through even a quarter of his discography to know that Springsteen stands for the working man, those punching their timecards and letting the calluses on their hands grow bigger. Decades as an arena sensation and his own one-man Broadway show haven't divorced him from his roots.
As the numerous references across his back catalogue and his mammoth touring schedules have long attested, he is a restless fellow almost maniacally preoccupied with hitting the road. And while those same Broadway shows poked fun at the inauthenticity of singing so often of a nine to five drudgery he knows nothing about, the road is something of which few songwriters have more experience. While far from autobiographical, Western Stars is covered in that conceptual tarmac, and Bruce details its every turn with unwavering authority.
The 2010s have been a tumultuous decade for fans of Bruce Springsteen. From the relative highs of 2012's 'Wrecking Ball' and last year's 'On Broadway' Netflix documentary and accompanying album, to the (ironically) career-lows of 2014's 'High Hopes', The Boss has delivered a significantly more mixed-bag than his devoted fans are accustomed to. This project carries a significant weight of expectation, as his first solo project in nearly fifteen years.
T he 19th Bruce Springsteen album has been heralded as a dramatic break from tradition. So dramatic, in fact, that in the interviews accompanying its release, Western Stars' author has felt impelled to reassure fans that he'll be back recording and touring with the E Street Band later this year. It's hard to miss the hint of "normal service will be resumed as soon as possible" about that announcement, balm for Boss fans horrified by how far Western Stars takes their hero from either of his standard musical styles.
Team Springsteen has kept Western Stars in a box for almost half a decade, while Bruce got distracted by his Born To Run memoir, boxset re-releases and the Broadway show, which ended up running for over a year. The closest he'd ever come to a day job, he said. Now as this new album emerges, they're already flagging up the next one and promising an E Street Band tour in 2020, as if so nervous about Western Stars' musical swerve they need to mitigate our reaction.