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Bruce Springsteen
Western Stars CJ Thorpe-Tracey , June 14th, 2019 10:41

Western Stars offers a rewarding hour in the company of the Boss, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

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. It’s a left turn but honestly, it’s not extreme.

Simple orchestral riffs and warm west coast production are thickly glooped onto a collection of songs that otherwise may have been too mellow for his rock canon, yet too nice for a stripped-down solo Bruce record. God, ‘nice’ is a damning word.

The vocal stands out mightily. Springsteen stretches himself and at the same time allows modern studio trickery to go to work, in ways we haven’t heard (or at least noticed) on his recent records. We get smoothness, soaring heights, proper crooning. The chorus of second single ‘There Goes My Miracle’ so powerful it pulls you out of reverie to admire it; the high-end punch of ‘Sundown' that sounds like Bruce doing The Killers doing Bruce; and the tidy melody of ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’; all gorgeous singing.

On the down side, the much hyped orchestral arrangements have the clipped pace and limited melody of an over-enunciated saxophone or organ part. Often the storytelling has a dulled edge: lyrical role-play in service of the ‘feel’ of the project, resulting in more cheese and cliché than usual. Springsteen is always a romantic but we need his grit and gift for noir as counterweight. So ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’ is an entrancing listen but gives up subtlety halfway through. ‘Wayfarer’ and ‘There Goes My Miracle’ are fully realised sonic adventures but their narratives are modest and loose.

At worst, you spot Bruce untidily squeezing and mispronouncing lyrics to fit his scansion, rather than perfecting them first. Lesser writers do this all the time – but whole decades have passed by without him doing it even once – and this album has some clangers.

It may not matter, when it’s this beautiful and uplifting as a casual listen. But it may be an enduring problem for Western Stars: music all chewy and delicious like this emphasises – rather than disguises – the need for nuanced, pungent story. Especially when the resurgent world of Americana songwriting has become so adept on comparatively tiny budgets. Never mind Jason Isbell, one can measure the achievements of Hooray For The Riff Raff or The Delines and find Western Stars wanting. In fact songs here lack the depth and realness of, say, Lorde or Billie Eilish in the outright pop world. The marshmallow needed more toasting and the fire’s right there.

I wonder if Springsteen came to know himself too well, excavating so brutally for the memoir and on Broadway, with excoriating dark humour and visionary truth. He set a new standard; pitched close to where Darkness On The Edge Of Town or Nebraska took him in earlier decades.

This isn’t that. Still, it’s a rewarding hour and he's earned the light relief.