Friday, June 14, 2019
Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars, review: born to run, destined to stick around
13 June 2019
When Bruce Springsteen started out, he was a young man, frustrated at small-town life, roaring that he was born to run. In some ways he didn’t get very far, as he pointed out in recent one-man show Springsteen On Broadway. Over 40 years later, he still lives 10 minutes from his hometown of Freemantle, New Jersey.
Springsteen turns 70 this year. He rose to stardom exploring the drudgery, sacrifice and rewards of working-class life while expressing a profound yearning for escape. The open road looms large in his songs, and in the mythology of America, but there is a very bittersweet tang to Springsteen’s latest road trip.
“It’s the same old cliché/ Wanderer on his way/ Slipping from town to town,” Springsteen sings on The Wayfarer, acknowledging the itinerant leitmotif of his art. Even as the melody rises in a glorious rush of strings, the mood is tinged with regret. “Where are you now?” calls the wayfarer, thoughts stuck on someone left behind.
Nostalgia has always been a core part of Springsteen’s oeuvre. The souped-up Seventies sound he created with the E Street Band was never particularly progressive, amalgamating blues, folk and rock ’n’ roll with the gossamer magic of pre-Beatles pop melodies and Phil Spector-style Wall of Sound production.
n Western Stars, he follows an alternative thread of Sixties pop, evoking the orchestral baroque country of Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell. Orchestras are woven into songs at source, with lush strings, booming timpani and flourishes of horns, while pedal steel guitars and tremolo effects add electric resonances. Springsteen drives proceedings with acoustic strumming, the rough tones of his voice rooting the symphonic gorgeousness in gritty reality. It stands comparison with his very best solo albums.
yrics offer character sketches, lives caught with a few deft lines and evocative melodies. The title track pictures a washed-up Hollywood actor advertising Viagra, Drive Fast portrays a lonely, broken-down stuntman and Somewhere North of Nashville gives us an embittered songwriter who traded love for “a melody and time to kill”.
The narrative is far from remorselessly bleak, however, lifted by the music and by Springsteen’s compassion for his characters. He has acknowledged lifelong struggles with depression, but the soaring Hello Sunshine chooses connection over the defeatist romance of isolation. It is a reminder that Springsteen’s own life as a touring musician has been grounded in family and domesticity (he has been married to his E Street bandmate Patti Scialfa since 1991).
With its tension between escapism and responsibility, Western Stars is an album about reaching the end of the road, and what you might find there.