The Boss has released his first studio album in 5 years, a pretty little gem called Western Stars that is lined with his hybred country inclinations, backed by soulful orchestral cinematic brushes, yet while ever-Springsteen, the album is more thoughtful and less political, housing a well produced package of slow-baked short stories, woven through his optimistic view that things just may be alright, or maybe not, but that’s alright too.
It’s Springsteen’s first entirely original collection of material since 2012’s Wrecking Ball and his only solo effort since Devils and Dust in 2005. It is also the young man’s 19th record to date; we think he’s going to make a name for himself, (ahem).
Western Stars opens with the country flavoured Hitch Hiker, which would normally be just a banjo-plucked ode to survival, but is enhanced by masterful background arrangement of strings and French horns that don’t blast through like previous E-Street Band material. It is a marriage, if you will, between folk structure with an orchestral panoramic pictorial that has appeared before in his music, such as his Academy Award winning Streets of Philadelphia (1994) and Oscar nominated Dead Man Walking (1996). He is joined by old friends such as Matt Chamberlad’s drums on The Wayfarer, and Marc Muller’s pedal-steel guitar on Chasin’ Wild Horses and Drive Fast (the Stuntman), his partner and former E-Street member Patti Scialfa who shines on vocals, accordion wizard Charlie Giordano on Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, then pitch-perfect performances by violinist Luis Villalobos on Stones, and pedal-steel fingers Marty Rifkin on Somewhere North of Nashville.
Some call this, correctly in our view, a concept album with a consistent theme of everyday people dealing with the bumpy ride called life, but with a softer source of inspiration than before, something like the California pop of the 60s and 70s. It is certainly what he’s made himself a name for, from defending the little guy, to bringing down the big guy. Springsteen touts the inspiration behind the record, “This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements, it's a jewel box of a record.”
On one of the album's more moving numbers, the title track Western Stars, in the video release directed by Grammy and Emmy Award winner Thom Zimny, he plays his Gibson J-200 softly in the background which serves to highlight his unmistakable voice. Other mentions that exemplify his Americana themes vein are Chasin’ Wild Horses, (as depicted on the cover, perhaps a nod to his equestrian daughter), Hello Sunshine, the perfect road song for driving across the great mid-American expanse, “You know I always liked that empty road/ No place to be and miles to go/ But miles to go is miles away/ Hello sunshine won’t you stay”. Another Zimny directed video release is Tucson Train, where the Boss struts his stuff with a cool Gretsch Chet Atkins. This is vintage Springsteen pedigree rock, embellished with strings and horns that is simply a pleasure to listen to.
His past 5 years have been admittedly very rough for him, coping with depression and writer’s block, he says he had to find some kind of inspiration, and he found it through an odd combo of sources, telling Variety Magazine that it was based on “Glenn Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, those kind of records. I don’t know if people will hear those influences, but that was what I had in mind. It gave me something to hook an album around; it gave me some inspiration to write.”
The Boss turns 70 soon, the once steel cowboy who was born to run has still got his mojo, albeit tempered over time. This is a fine collection of new material that remains true the message he has always brought. He is truly The Boss.