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Western Stars: Songs from the Film

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Four months after his ‘Western Stars’ solo album was released, Bruce Springsteen has now issued a soundtrack album as companion to the ‘Western Stars’ feature-length film, which captures Bruce and 30 supporting musicians performing the album live in its entirety in the roof of his Colts Neck, NJ barn – plus a bonus performance of Glen Campbell’s ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, the only cover version included.

Some may query why the apparently similar releases? The first thing to note is that the studio ‘Western Stars’ album, while released in 2019, actually originated in 2010, as confirmed by producer Ron Aniello: ‘Started in 2010…finished 2014…finished again in 2018.’ So the foundation of that first version reflects a 61-year old Bruce; it should come as no surprise that he wanted to explore how the material would sound in his 70th year, particularly as he made it clear there was no plan to tour behind the album. Both the film and its accompanying soundtrack serve between them as a way to share the experience of a live event with Bruce’s fans, and revisit the arrangements in the process. Some of the musicians used are the same as on the earlier studio sessions, but the opportunity to use others is also taken, to great effect.

Rolling Stone noted the development in ‘Western Stars’ from viewing the live film: ‘“As a performance film, Western Stars is a pitch-perfect example of why this music needed to be played and heard live,” Rolling Stone Entertainment Editor David Fear wrote in a review of the movie. “On record, you can feel Springsteen working his way through some uncharacteristic styles: Jimmy Webb-style C&W lite, Brian Wilson’s baroque pop, Everly Brothers-like crooning, musical arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Harry Nilsson joint…. Seeing him take on those songs on a stage, however, and you get the sense he owns all of it now - he’s turned all of these influences into a seamless Springsteen sound.”

My early instinct about the studio version of the album was that I could not imagine any improvement on the performances or production, it had its own feelingof completeness in a way, and for that reason I understood why Bruce didn’t take it on the road. What a delight, then, to discover that he found a way to reinterpret these songs and breathe fresh life into them for us – an inspired (and of course shrewd) move. The most obvious evolution in the arrangements is adding Patti to duet on songs such as ‘Stones’ – as they share a microphone, the power of the tale of betrayal and hurt is vividly, almost brutally amplified; it feels strikingly confessional. The material conveys the feel of a live performance: witness Bruce encouraging Charlie Giordano to continue playing accordion towards the end of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Café’, extending the song and perfectly reflecting the upbeat, rowdy bar atmosphere he’s singing about.

As Bruce said at the film premiere in Toronto: “Like I say at the beginning of the picture, there are two sides of the American character: the solitary side and the side that yearns for connection and community. That’s just been a lifetime trip for me, trying to figure out how to get from one to the other, how to reconcile those two things.” With these consecutive releases – the solo album from the loner, and the full orchestral production with musical companions - he’s found a way to bridge that span.

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