I don’t write too much about music on this site – yesterday I wrote about the latest playlist I’ve been writing my fiction to, and last year I wrote about some great story songs but generally I tend to stick to fiction and books on the site.
However, when I finally get round to finishing my list of 10 extended views of authors, there are two songwriters I’ll have included on there, and Bruce Springsteen will be one of them.
Full disclosure – I’ve loved Springsteen’s music ever since, as a fifteen-year-old kid another newspaper boy (or, given ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’, maybe ‘newspaper dispatch operative…?) lent me her Walkman (yes, it was 1984) and a couple of cassettes to accompany me in the pouring rain as I walked the streets. I have no memory of what the other tapes were, but Born in the USA got me through a lot of deliveries and changed a lot for me. By that Christmas I’d bought every Springsteen album available, the following year I ran out of my O level English Language exam in which, along with a fellow convert, I’d inserted as many Springsteen track names into my essay as I could (I got an ‘A’ so I guess in that sense I’ll always owe Bruce something) and went directly to St James Park to see Springsteen on his Born in the USA tour.
Springsteen is an author, no doubt about it – and not just a ‘songwriter’ – a goddamn writer full stop, and believing that Nebraska, Springsteen’s 1982 album sparsely recorded on a 4-track cassette tape with nothing more than a guitar, harmonica, is one of the finest collections of fiction put down: textured, depressing, haunting and character driven – that it happens to be put to music is almost an irrelevancy in the strength of the tales. If you’re a writer and have never heard Nebraska do so today – for a lesson in writing sparse, honed stories of economy about everyday life and the people who all too often get on the wrong side of it.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Bruce Springsteen has a new album out, so here are my thoughts on it after a couple of listens this morning.
Western Stars is Bruce Springsteen’s first studio album for 5 years, coming after 2014’s High Hopes (which felt more like a mixture of covers, reworking and unreleased tracks), Western Stars feels much more of a ‘piece’, and the closest Springsteen has come to a ‘concept’ album since 2002’s post 9/11 themed The Rising.
It’s a ‘solo’ album – not as sparse as Nebraska or Ghost of Tom Joad; there is a full accompaniment of musicians – including ex- E-street band member David Sancious, and mainstays Patti Scialfa and violinist Soozie Tyrell but not as full-on rock of a Lucky Town or Human Touch. What it means is there are no stinging guitar solos, wailing Sax or epic length songs (only one of the thirteen songs, Chasin’ Wild Horses scrapes in over 5 minutes) Instead this is Springsteen in character drawing mode – a lot has been written about the album’s inspiration from Southern California pop of the late ’60s and early ’70s and musically that and much more come across on the album – there are touches of Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach, but also, to my ears touches as diverse as Roy Orbison, Harry Nielson, and even the Mavericks, and of course, tracks that bring to mind musically phrasing from other Springsteen works. It’s an album of tales of travel – of the great wide open, and perhaps as he alluded to in his Broadway show, one of the best indications yet that he is a storyteller – that these songs are no more autobiographical than the young rebels of Greetings from Asbury Park or Born to Run, or the characters approaching middle age of Born in the USA remembering their glory days. This is an album of songs about men a long way from where Springsteen is today in terms of wealth, lifestyle or experience – but rounded characters perhaps more fitting for a man approaching his 70th birthday, songs about an aging actor (“Western Stars”), a drifter (“The Wayfarer”), or a stuntman who has been battered down but not broken by work and life (“Drive Fast“).
The overriding style tends to be an accompaniment to Springsteen’s voice and guitar – always a backing rather than a lead of, say, a Backstreets or Jungleland.
It’s at times a pensive album, but a long way from the bleakness of Nebraska, Tom Joad, Devils and Dust and the like. It feels like a driving album – whether you’ve got the wide-open landscapes whose images are drawn out in such evocative manners across the 13 songs to head down in your open top Cadillac or you’re pootling down the M1 in your Ford Mondeo…
There may not be anything as immediately anthemic as the E-street albums provide, but it’s a thing of quiet beauty in its own way: and even after just a couple of listens strikes me could be Springsteen’s best album since The Rising.
Summarising the 13 tracks? Well, very early thoughts but if you’re wondering what to expect, here’s what I thought:
Hitch Hikin’ – the album starter begins solo, Springsteen and what could be a…banjo?Strings come in, increasing to orchestral: it’s a slow/ medium tempo: giving the impression of astart of a journey. A song which pronounces the narrator is “Riding high on top of the world” but doesn’t reach the full build we might expect. Hey – there’s a lot more to come…
The Wayfarer – staccato plucking/ strumming, with the stuttering implication of a Brilliant Disguise. Strings coming in again before Springsteen’s voice talks about a ‘same sad story of love and glory’. By the songs mid-point that first real California feel, complete with horns starts to come in.
Tucson Train – sees Springsteen looking forward while thinking about things left behind, a love coming in on a Tucson train. A medium pace shuffling with string refrains and the first refrain a more familiar break into Springsteen territory.
Western Stars – a more mournful start on this one. The narrator is waking up in the morning… a familiar enough motif whether Blues or Springsteen’s own One Step Forward. The track almost sounds as if it may break into a Rhinestone Cowboy-esque piece, before dropping back into its more contemplative meanderings with considerations of lost cowboys like John Wayne as the Western Stars shine bright again. Throughout the song, the orchestra ebbs and flows in and out, almost reminiscent of Tunnel of Love’s All that Heaven Allows in its melody at times.
Sleepy Joe’s Café – an upbeat, jingle jangle mini-history of a small-town café owner, complete with country refrains and Hammond organs and accordions, at times almost sounding like a riff on the Mavericks type horns.
Drive Fast (The Stuntman) – softly strummed guitar and background piano, which again builds to a soaring orchestral accompaniment, rising and falling in tentative waves. A world-worn man, who will ‘drive fast – and fall hard’.
Chasin’ Wild Horses – Melody touches reminiscent of Your Worst Enemy from Magic album, with Soozi Tyrell’s mournful violin prominent. The longest track on the album, it talks to regrets and mistakes made, the narrator a self-imposed exile.
Sundown – a chugging rumination, with Springsteen’s voice in a slightly lighter mode – talking about lonely towns and wishing a someone is with him come Sundown. (a few musical phrases almost suggested the much more upbeat Girls in Their Summer Clothes from Magic). The song breathes with a size to it – it feels big, with the strings accompanying his Sundown lament and even throws in some sha-la-las.
Somewhere North of Nashville – a quieter reflection – a more simply plucked guitar, with gentle piano and strings buried deeper into the background. Short – almost more like a coda in its 1.52 length.
Stones – another ‘I woke up this morning’ song. About the ‘lies that you’ve told me’ in a long-gone summer song with the band kicking in halfway through.
There Goes My Miracle – at times the song sounds almost like a Roy Orbison tribute – whether referencing him in Thunder Road or supporting him in the ‘one night’ all-star concert, Springsteen has never hidden his love and if he knows his vocals will never have the same range as the big O’s this sounds as if it could have come from one of the later Orbison albums.
Hello Sunshine – the first song released ahead of the album, it feels to me, reminiscent of Harry Nielson. An insistent shuffling brush joined by piano, with soaring violin, as Springsteen professing his love of lonely towns, empty streets and roads. It’s a song that builds and probably one that grows after a few listens, too.
Moonlight Motel –is a pared down subtle thing. A good night of a track bringing the album to a close, still missing a lover, thinking and drinking about them, in a lonely bed, in a lonely town.
Oh, and if the album cover happens to be one of the worst I’ve seen since Bob Seger’s similarly equine-themed ‘Against the Wind‘…well, I can live with that. It’s not an argument for the move to digital streaming, but its never going to end up on my wall…
Western Stars was released on 14/06/19