Spring­steen sets new path on West­ern Stars

The Prince George Citizen - - A&e -

Bruce Spring­steen’s new stu­dio re­lease breaks fresh ground for the vet­eran rocker, who turns his back not only on the blis­ter­ing sound of the E Street Band but also aban­dons the haunt­ing acous­tic moods pi­o­neered on “Ne­braska” and fine-tuned on later solo ef­forts.

Af­ter the soul-search­ing, con­fes­sional tone of his best­selling au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and sold-out Broad­way show, Spring­steen’s West­ern Stars re­lies on an un­fa­mil­iar or­ches­tral ap­proach that some­what masks the singer and is de­void of driv­ing beats, sax so­los and rock ‘n’ roll tropes.

In­stead, he draws on the rich tra­di­tion of Cal­i­for­nia-styled, pre-Bea­tles pop. There are hints of Roy Or­bi­son’s soar­ing vo­cals and Brian Wil­son’s pocket sym­phonies, but the lyrics are pure Spring­steen. Be­neath the glossy sheen are the taut nar­ra­tives, in­tro­spec­tion and am­bigu­ous mo­ments fa­mil­iar to long­time lis­ten­ers. His sto­ry­telling skills are as strong as ever, just pre­sented in a dif­fer­ent way.

He’s pay­ing homage to an era when the sin­gle reigned, and ra­dio air­time went a long way to de­ter­min­ing an artist’s suc­cess or obliv­ion, but Spring­steen is not look­ing for No.1 hits with easy hooks. West­ern Stars is un­der­stated, with­out over-the-top or­ches­tra­tion or hy­per­bole. Each song stands alone as a self-con­tained story; taken as a whole it’s a panorama of lone­li­ness and heart­break.

The pro­tag­o­nists are mostly men, and mostly beaten down, but there are oc­ca­sional whiffs of free­dom, usu­ally tied to the joys of the open road, that most en­dur­ing of Amer­i­can myths.

It is no ac­ci­dent that the al­bum opens with Hitch Hikin’ and this straight­for­ward im­age of a loner in per­pet­ual mo­tion: “Thumb stuck out as I go/I’m just trav­elin’ up the road/Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I fol­low the weather and the wind.” It’s a re­cur­ring im­age dat­ing back to the days of Woody Guthrie.

There are other fully-formed char­ac­ters from Spring­steen’s imag­i­na­tion: the failed coun­try mu­sic song­writer, his lyrics re­jected at ev­ery turn, the busted up B-movie stunt­man held to­gether by rods and pins, even a run­down ho­tel with an empty swim­ming pool with dan­de­lions push­ing up through the cracked con­crete takes on a life of its own as a char­ac­ter in Moon­light Mo­tel. But it’s not all heart­break.

There are small cel­e­bra­tions, too, no­tably in Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, where work­ing men and women can find so­lace on the dance floor when the week­end comes.

It’s a dreamy place where Mon­day morn­ing is far, far away, and Spring­steen has placed it in the con­text of the post­war eco­nomic boom that pow­ered Amer­ica for decades: “Joe came home in ‘45 and took out a G.I. loan/On a sleepy lit­tle spot an Army cook could call his own/He mar­ried May, the high­way come in and they woke up to find they were sit­ting on top of a pretty lit­tle gold mine.”

It’s a nos­tal­gic vi­sion, yes, but those road­houses still ex­ist.

You just have to drive a bit.


Bruce Spring­steen per­forms on Nov. 5 at the 12th an­nual Stand Up For Heroes ben­e­fit concert at the Hulu The­ater at Madi­son Square Gar­den in New York.

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