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Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen - Album Review

The Boss releases his 19th studio album to much acclaim around the internet and, following his universally praised Broadway run, with perhaps more interest and excitement than for a while.

I've already detailed my thoughts on the earlier released "Hello Sunshine", (here), and it left me hoping for his "Nashville Skyline". Whilst it isn't that; there is no "Lay Lady Lay" and it doesn't feature Johnny Cash, it is something else that is both intriguing and has many enjoyable moments. 

A "Western" album rather than "Country & Western", it is as much a departure as were "Nebraska" or "The Seeger Sessions" in their own time. I am a big fan of the use of strings in music, not just for ballads but in rock and even metal, (I consider Metallica's "S&M" to be amongst their finest work). I'm also a resolute defender of "Outlaw Pete", (more on that here), a song which had it been on this album rather than an E-Street Band record, might have been viewed much more favourably by many of his fans. 

As such I was favourably disposed to this album before I'd even heard it. Once again I feared the curse of heightened expectation had struck. On first listen only really "Hello Sunshine", "There Goes Miracle" "and "Stones" stood out and stuck in my memory. 
Fortunately I stuck with it and much like during my initial Springsteen epiphany, everything changed at a specific point. On the 3rd play through, at the 2:30 mark of "The Wayfarer" when his voice briefly echoes a later day David Bowie before the full band and cowboy horns come in, it all clicked; and I was carried away with the strings into the widescreen sky along with our Roy Orbison loving narrator.
There are still some reservations. I find that "Hitch Hikin'", somewhat ironically, never really goes anywhere musically, and I still can't hear it without thinking of Sturgill Simpson's cover of "In Bloom".
However things pick up with "The Wayfarer" with a verse melody very reminiscent of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and continues the dominant theme of album, the journey.
Perhaps with Bruce looking back on a life of telling stories the need to keep moving stylistic sense has bled over into the subject matter. It is basically the soundtrack to a road movie.

I'd avoided listening to any of the other tracks released ahead of the album in order to hear them fresh and in context.  "Tuscon Train", along with the upbeat "Sleepy Joe's Cafe" is one of the tracks that feels and sounds most like a "normal" Springsteen song, in that it is one where I can most easily imagine the E-Street Band version.

"Chasing Wild Horses" was leaving me flat until the strings came in to lift things. The orchestration and arrangements throughout the album are a testament to the power of the orchestral sound to elevate both the song and mood.
As many others have commented, Bruce's voice has rarely sounded better than it does here, and "Sundown" shows this clearly as it barrels along nicely with some tremolo twang to keep the cowboy feel going.

"Somewhere North Of Nashville" underwhelms me, and along with the album opener is the other track I'd cut from the album.

"There Goes My Miracle" continues the powerful vocals of "Sundown", and is the most immediately accessible song on the album. "Stones" is the real centrepiece of the album for me and the one that lingers longest in the memory.  
Closer "Moonlight Motel" has a melancholic and almost nursery rhyme feel, that wraps things up appropriately. 

In summary rather than his "Nashville Skyline" as I'd originally hoped, it is more like "Outlaw Pete: The Album". I consider that a very good thing, and with just a little judicious pruning we could have been looking at a classic. As it is, what we have is a very good album, and proof that at an age when most of us would be retired, The Boss can still surprise us whist delivering the goods.

"Those are only the lies you've told me....."


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