Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
A Bruce Springsteen album where the music carries more of the weight than the lyrics? Well, we aren’t quite there yet, but Western Stars comes as close as any Springsteen album ever has in resetting that balance. It’s clear that the Boss and producer Ron Aniello worked hard to evoke the Western milieu, utilizing wide-screen strings and rousing horns. Springsteen also pushes the frontier on his usual approach, delivering ambitious rhyme schemes and vocals both robust and, occasionally, rich with vibrato.
His clever tactic is to set the larger-than-life approach against relatively small stories. He deftly jumps in and out of characterizations, inhabiting a has-been actor, a self-destructive stuntman, and a rustler chasing horses while evading his past. What they all have in common is a gnawing sense of what they’ve sacrificed or just plain lost due to either circumstance or their own mistakes. Springsteen hasn’t focused on the ache of the beauty or the beauty of the ache quite so much since Tunnel Of Love some 32 years ago.
Western Stars is erratic in the first half, as Springsteen’s need for exposition sometimes grinds uneasily against the sweep of the music. But the second half is a profound pleasure. Bruce occasionally pays touching homage, to Roy Orbison on “There Goes My Miracle,” and to Fred Neil and Danny O’Keefe on “Hello Sunshine.” “Sundown” is expertly-rendered baroque pop, while “Chasin’ Wild Horses” captures just how lonely the majestic landscape can seem.
The biggest surprise on Western Stars comes from a pair of weepers. “Somewhere North Of Nashville” ponders the price that a songwriter must pay to get their best material. And closing track “Moonlight Motel” represents that metaphorical stopover where youth and romance once flourished. It makes you wish that Springsteen could dash off an album full of such country songs. Until then, Western Stars will have to do, and it does just fine.