Anyone who has had their Boss fixation tickled in the last fortnight by the heavy rotation of 'Tucson Train' (the affecting live-in-the-studio video released 30 May and currently chewing up views on YouTube) will find much to love here – even if parts of Springsteen’s nineteenth studio album have way too many string-smothering moments.
First up – while the E-Street Band aren’t to be seen too much in the musician credits (its effectively a solo album of all new material) – 'Western Stars' goes hard on guest players. There are over 20 of them, from horns and steel guitars to strings, strings and more strings.
It opens well – really well – the plucked banjo and acoustic guitar of 'Hitch Hikin’' has our rolling stone journeyman following the weather and the wind and happily chewing the cud with a pregnant couple who stop for him in their humble pickup truck. The strings build and build as our lone hitcher rides high on top of the world; you begin to think this is a wickedly good new direction and sound.
Musically, Springsteen’s new album is a sort of countrified nod to American songstrels like Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and the craft of Burt Bacharach. Sounds like a good idea says you and a brave new direction for someone so indelibly linked to the fist pumping bombast of old and fiery saxophone solos. But therein lies the problem - there’s a nagging sensation as the different listen progresses that while the big cinematic canvas soundscape idea is appealing on paper, in practice across 13 ever-so-slightly ambling songs it feels like you’re being forced fed too much overly romanticised Americana.
But then 'Western Stars' goes and upends those preconceived notions. 'The Wayfarer' comes on a tad too cheesy at first - but improves on repeat listens – especially those delicately laced-in keyboard flourishes.
It’s hardly surprising that 'Tucson Train' has been moving so many people – it's one of the best songs on the album. Our working class hero is trying to outrun a mistake that’s left his world full of a big fat nothing. But he’s hopeful – smiling as he waits for the 5:15 down at the station, trusting that something or someone good is about to alight on the platform any moment now. By the time we get to 'Western Stars', our minds and hearts have adjusted to Bruce’s aged, gravelly voice, the sound and pace of the songs. The title tune contains clever warbling instruments and a pedal steel made to sound like a lonesome echo in the Prairie distance. But 'Sleepy Joe’s Café falls shorter – it's a sort of cod barroom dance piece layered with accordion that just feels forced.
Better is 'Drive Fast (The Stuntman)' a mid-tempo tale of a car-slamming desperado driving fast and falling hard – ignoring the pins in his ankle, that busted collar bone and those scars on his scars, clutching at drugs and the acceleration pedal beneath his feet to speed the mental demons out. 'Chasin’ Wild Horses' is pretty but again swamped by unnecessary layers of movie strings, as is 'Sundown.' Things quieten into unplugged Nebraska territory for 'Somewhere North Of Nashville' – an almost bootleg, eerie vocal uplifted by pedal steel and piano.
The home run of four 'Stones', 'There Goes My Miracle', 'Hello Sunshine' and 'Moonlight Motel' all tread the same arrangement territory, but it’s hard to get a sense of whether that's actually a good thing or simply cluttered, strangulated productions that need paring back.
'Western Stars' is a good album then with more than the feeling of a great album lying dormant beneath too many production layers – a masterpiece desperately trying to get out from under all those pedal steel and syrupy string moments.
But then again – the Boss even half cocked is a thrilling thing to savour when he gets it right. And I suspect somehow that American buyers will garnish a sense of pride at their boy still doing good – still relevant – still putting his heart out there – and in a time when the USA desperately needs its honest chroniclers...
Western Stars is out now via Columbia.