Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars (2019)

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No, this wasn’t a forgotten release.  I just needed to live with it for a while before I could review it.  You see, sometimes you have a particular affinity for an artist, making it a daunting, and somewhat overwhelming task to objectively write about their music.  I have several bands and artists who are hard for me to write about – Springsteen is close to the top of that pile.

His music has just always been there throughout my life, and as a result, it’s special to me.  I love the “classic rock” stylings of Born To Run and Born in the USA, and his more somber tracks like The Streets of Philadelphia are just as good, if not better.  In fact, I’m not sure that there’s a Springsteen song that I don’t like.

Honestly, at this stage of his career, he has nothing left to prove, yet he’s here in 2019, releasing an album that is quite possibly the best work he’s done in nearly two decades.

This is not a big or bold rock album, instead it’s very much a vocal driven masterclass in songwriting and storytelling.  Opening with Hitch Hikin’, Western Stars is a love letter to the Western regions of the USA, and the people who inhabit the area.

The Wayfarer tells the story of a drifter, in a way that only Springsteen could.  He truly embodies the character, even if only for the four and a half minute duration of the song.  And this is the best Bruce has sounded in years.

Tucson Train is a country tinged number, and the story line follows on from the previous tracks.  The grand scheme of Western Stars is that of a concept album, and as the title track grabs hold of me, I realise I’ve been letting this play out in my head with cinematic visions of dusty towns and ragged drifters.  It’s brilliant.

Sleepy Joe’s Cafe is a little more up tempo, with subtle overtones from the backing band, and a great back beat.  Drive Fast (The Stuntman) brings back the cinematic imagery, as Springsteen adds a little bit of a southern drawl to his delivery.  Chasin’ Wild Horses again sees Bruce deliver one of his better vocal performances, as he sings us the story of a man who left his life behind to chase wild horses across Montana, from the first person perspective.

Each song on offer, plays as if it’s a sequel to its predecessor.  I’m sure these songs aren’t all about the one “character”, but you could certainly let it play that way.  Sundown furthers the storyline that I’ve allowed this music to conjure for me, and Somewhere North of Nashville takes it even further.   

On Stones, the guitars are immaculately sedated, but once again, the vocal performance is the undeniable star – which is more or less to be expected.  There Goes My Miracle sees Bruce hitting some higher range that he hasn’t come close to in years, while Hello Sunshine is a subdued shuffle.

Moonlight Motel is the final track, another laid back wander through small town life in the Western USA.  Understated musical arrangement is the key here.  The storytelling is the main focus.

I’m not ashamed to say that this has been a wonderful listening experience.  51 minutes that took me on a journey – it might sound silly to say, but I felt like I was living out the story he was laying out.  Western Stars is an absolutely stunning album.

9/10

Review by Shayne McGowan.

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