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Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars album review

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Review by Dan French

1. Hitch Hikin'

A sparse acoustic introduction, with a repeated banjo(?) figure and maybe glockenspiel. Then massed strings come in, deep as a bass guitar, and Bruce sets out his musical stall: this album is very orchestral throughout, and cinematic – the soundtrack to a Californian road trip. It’s a free-wheeling, carefree view of the life of a hitch-hiker ‘hitch hikin’ all day long’.

2. The Wayfarer

Starts with thudding guitar, then deep string chords. I’m struck by memories of the ‘Tunnel Of Love’ album, possibly ‘Brilliant Disguise’. The beginning feels like a home demo until the orchestra builds and swells. The first real drums on the album are heard late in the song during an instrumental break, and kick in again at the end. The wayfarer of the title is restless, roaming around like Dion’s ‘The Wanderer’, alone at night and seeking solitude – drawn by ‘the white lines in my head’.

3. Tucson Train

Both the intro and outro feature a restless tapping sound – like either a train rhythm, or impatiently tapping fingers, perhaps. A rich melodic hook, again making me think of the ‘Tunnel’ album. The drums start on the second verse. It’s a mostly positive tale of a guy looking forward to meeting his girl off the said train, but hinting at the darkness he’s trying to escape by doing so – there’s a ‘voice that keeps me awake at night’, and he wishes ‘If I could just turn off my brain’. It could be a counterpoint to ‘There Goes My Miracle’: here, she’s arriving; there, she’s leaving.

4. Western Stars

Opening with a haunting, ‘Paris, Texas’-like vibe, I’m reminded vaguely of ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ with the melody, but musically it’s the flipside of that. Bruce pulls out some vivid images of stars, coyotes, and a woman in a bar described as a ‘lost sheep’ in this tale of a Western actor – with references to ‘the set’, ‘the makeup girl’ and a scene in which ‘once I was shot by John Wayne’. One of several songs which starts and ends with much the same lyrics: ‘I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on’.

5. Sleepy Joe's Café

An up-tempo, catchy dance tune, with accordion lifting the spirits, about a place with ‘summer girls in the parking lot’ who ‘flirt the night away’. The keyboards on the instrumental break would have made Danny proud. Bruce channels the joyful sound of the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Mavericks, among others. It’s pure escapism and fun.

6. Drive Fast (The Stuntman)

This could be Bruce writing again in the vein of ‘The Wrestler’, this time about a stuntman whose motto is ‘don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t mind the scars; drive fast, fall hard’. He’s looking for anything to give him a lift at this stage in his life, and hoping to find someone to ‘get the broken pieces to fit’. The tale is underpinned by deep, twangy guitar – a nod to the Wichita Lineman, maybe. Another song opening and closing with the same lines, a couplet about his injuries sustained at work: ‘I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone /A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.’

7. Chasin' Wild Horses

A song about the regretsof youth from an older perspective. The line about working until you’re ‘too tired to think’ could be from the same guy who felt that in ‘Something In The Night’. ‘Tryin’ to get you off my mind /Is like chasin’ wild horses…’ Again very cinematic in feel, with a long instrumental ending capped off by an extra echoing coda. Musically reminiscent of ‘Your Own Worst Enemy’ in melody at times.

8. Sundown

Following almost straight out of ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’, with drums urging the rhythm restlessly, it opens with ‘I’m twenty-five hundred miles from where I wanna be’, like the reference to ‘miles to go is miles away’ in ‘Hello Sunshine’. Once again there’s ‘a little voice in my head’, here it’s his salvation, keeping him ‘from sinking down /Come Sundown’. Sundown is a place here, as much as a time, and not ‘the kind of place you want to be on your own.’

9. Somewhere North of Nashville

The shortest song lyrically, with only 17 lines, and probably barely a couple of minutes in length as well. It’s a brief sketch of a tune, about the regrets of a songwriter with only ‘this melody, and time to kill’.

10. Stones

The opening line reminds me of ‘Empty Sky’, although here ‘I woke up this morning with stones in my mouth’. A slow, ponderous drumbeat measures out the tempo, with touches of twangy guitar. Lyrically it’s an intense song about the bitterness of betrayal and mistrust, repeating and repeating the key, damning line: ‘Those are only the lies you’ve told me’.

11. There Goes My Miracle

With a bigger, more sweeping feel than lead single ‘Hello Sunshine’, this is heavily orchestrated, and features strings, horns, tympani and multiple backing vocals. It’s reminiscent of the arrangements from ‘Working On A Dream’, like ‘Kingdom Of Days’ (which also uses the ‘walk away’ idea). Given this lush background, it’s still noticeable that the main feature is Bruce's own rich, soaring lead vocal, especially on the chorus. The ‘miracle’ in the song is ‘walking away’ and leaving (‘Look what we’ve done… heartache, heartbreak…’); it captures that poignant moment of realisation of loss in a relationship. Yet again, Bruce uses the same lyric to open and close the song: ‘Sunrise, sundown’.

12. Hello Sunshine

As the lead release from the album, the ‘inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late '60s and early '70s’ to which Bruce has referred is obvious. The main elements include multiple strings, steel guitar and brushed drums, echoing the restrained sound of songs like ‘Secret Garden’ and ‘Blood Brothers’. ‘Hello Sunshine’ is both gentle and dark in tone, despite the apparent brightness first suggested by its title. It concisely reflects the ebb and flow of depression, and the pull of isolation and darkness, again leading to heartbreak: ‘had a little sweet spot for the rain… you can get a little too fond of the blues.’ ‘You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.’

13. Moonlight Motel

The album’s closer starts with acoustic guitar and echoing vocals, in this description of ‘a place on a blank stretch of road where /Nobody travels and nobody goes’ and the stark contradiction of ‘the pool’s filled with empty’. A retrospective on young love (‘it’s better to have loved…’) by someone revisiting old haunts, it ends with this striking image of an unusual toast to the past:

‘I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag
Poured one for me and one for you as well
Then it was one more shot poured
out onto the parking lot
To the Moonlight Motel.’

click on the image below to pre-order Western Stars now. With exclusive print while stocks last.

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