Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars (Columbia)

Tucson Train Bruce Springsteen
Photo credit: Rob Demartin

Released today, Western Stars is Bruce Springsteen’s 19th studio album. A beautiful sweeping soundscape, which for me musically, conjures up the image of a rancher looking out over a large expanse of a Western dusty land. Stallions gently whicker to the sound of a transistor radio, playing sweeping Southern California pop records from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Its beautifully laid back, with themes of distance, travel, dusty highways, reflection and wanderlust. The opening track ‘Hitch Hikin’ gets under the skin of that ‘rolling stone’ spirit that Springsteen does so well, the characters that pick him up, the observations that are made along the way. Like the photos and mementos from a loved one on the dashboard or hanging from the rear-view mirror. The stories that are told on the ride, by the different faces of the drivers and the appreciation shared for the vehicle which bonds the strangers in some connected way.

‘The Wayfarer’ follows with itchy feet and a strings section to put distance between this town and the next, a tale of night travel when most are at rest, the ‘wheels hissing up the highway spinning round and round’ and dreams of moving on ‘When I go to sleep, I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head’. There is a sense of longing and looking for that ‘one that got away’ as brass heralds the call for what is longingly missing as organ fades out.

Things then pick up a pace as the clicking percussion wheels on the tracks lead in to ‘Tucson Train’ with horn section announcing its arrival. Its probably the most ‘what you would expect a Springsteen track to sound like’ one on the album but then again, Western Stars is not your typical Springsteen album which makes it special. It’s a song of regret and ‘fighting hard over nothing’ and perhaps reconciliation is in the narrative as the words ‘my baby is coming in on the Tucson Trainsuggest.

Somewhere North of Nashville’ with its stripped back feel could have fitted well on The Ghost of Old Tom Joad album as it tries to recall that misplaced melody, somewhere down that lost highway, tallying up all the things that could have been done differently or better. As I said earlier, Springsteen digs lyrically deep on this record and perhaps there is no better example than ‘Stones’. Family and relationship, emotionally delivered ‘I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth – you said those were only the lies you told me’, just fantastic, interlaced with pining Orchestral strings.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

The 13 tracks of Western Stars were recorded chiefly at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey, with additional recording in California and New York. Ron Aniello produced Western Stars with Springsteen and the album was mixed by Tom Elmhirst with contributions from more than 20 other players.

A many faceted, sublime body of work from the ‘Boss’, evoking a Nashville tinged sadness of nostalgia, mystery love, distance, the road and endless highways and cinematic open desert spaces. Its sweeping range of American themes are musically set to orchestral arrangements of strings, horns and pedal steel and grounded in themes of seclusion, community, home, hard work, family and hope. Its a real treasure to be treasured.

Darren Beech

‘Western Stars’ track listing…

  1. Hitch Hikin’
  2. The Wayfarer
  3. Tucson Train
  4. Western Stars
  5. Sleepy Joe’s Café
  6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)
  7. Chasin’ Wild Horses
  8. Sundown
  9. Somewhere North of Nashville
  10. Stones
  11. There Goes My Miracle
  12. Hello Sunshine
  13. Moonlight Motel