Not taking into account his plethora of live recordings and EP’s, Springsteen recently released his nineteenth studio album entitled “Western Stars”. A return to his solo recording style, firmly based around story-telling with orchestral arrangements, and in this instance, inspired by 70’s Californian pop music. With a rich range of themes based on American tropes such as lonely highways, and the feelings of isolation travelling vast desert spaces through the US, let’s check it out and see if this bona fide western star can still shine so far into his career...
We open up with “Hitch Hikin’” and let it be said in advance that, the name sums up the journey through this album really quite appropriately; a seemingly endless wait for something to come and pick you up with no real guarantees. With its softly plucked acoustic yet, tinny guitar, it’s got an almost southern blue-grass aesthetic filtering in ever so slightly, before an elegant, sweeping string section gives the track more instrumental depth. Everything is soothing but here Springsteen’s voice comes across as occasionally monotonous. While a lot of this record is generally stripped back and mellow, there are a couple of points of interest worth highlighting…lead single “Hello Sunshine” houses a tranquil, almost tropical guitar tone while more delicate strings meander through your ears. Despite its down-tempo approach and low-key vibe it’s still a positive little song and you can’t help but feel relaxed having listened to it.
“Sundown” despite its livelier tone, incorporating subtle blues elements and a more powerful vocal performance tells a sad tale of solitude and loneliness, spending the nights alone drifting from bar to bar, missing the one he holds dearest in his heart. The real album highlight however comes courtesy of “Sleepy Joe’s Café”…far more up-beat and jovial, it’s anything but sleepy as it utilises an old-school rock ‘n’ roll feel, coupled with organs and a brass accompaniment ; it’s a genuinely fun, light-hearted little track. Sadly, the rest of the album, despite Springsteen’s narrative and penchant for story-telling within his songs, comes across as a tad lifeless for the most part.
“Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” for example, despite admittedly being composed beautifully, exudes nowhere near the level of energy you’d expect given its name, leaving you somewhat disappointed. You hope for something zestful, something bold and boisterous, yet it’s everything but. “Chasin’ Wild Horses” suffers from the same issues; the title portrays something maybe a touch chaotic, but honestly he couldn’t catch a bloody cold here let alone a wild horse, before luckily, we eventually finish up at “Moonlight Motel”. Given the general pacing of the album overall, it’s both fitting from the point of the albums narrative, and ironic as having listened to the album from start to finish, you could do with putting your head down for a couple of hours. Springsteen can obviously still weave wonderful stories and concepts into his song writing, and musically there’s nothing really wrong with these tracks at all, the orchestral elements especially sound lovely, but it’s a very restrained record that struggles to warrant many repeat listens. If you prefer your music to be more easy-listening then sure you may enjoy this a lot more, but on this occasion it would appear that the boss has taken some annual leave…