Bruce Springsteen’s 19th album is a solo one (of sorts); a character driven affair charting modern America similar to Devils and Dust, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska before it. This time to go with the stories of hope, love, fear and loss we get pop, country and glossy orchestration instead of the aforementioned trios acoustic and folk.
On Western Stars music and the lyrics are at odds with each other, soft and lush melodies tell tales of working life, love and broken heroes. ‘Drive Fast (The Stuntman)’ is about a beaten and broken ex stuntman past his prime reminiscing about the old times, set to the tune of Glen Campbell-esque country pop. The regret filled yearnings of ‘Sundown’, where the narrator hops from day to day and bar to bar hoping for his lover back, is laid out in a cinematic, all too easy listening manner. The bittersweet radio single ‘There Goes My Miracle’ is layered with horns, strings and a softly crooned chorus. Whilst not bad by any stretch it is too soft, it is calling out for something more down to earth and more hard hitting to match Springsteen’s world building lyrics.
The title track manages to strike this fine balance, a tale of an aging actor regaling his John Wayne war stories to anyone with a friendly face and an open bar tab. It does so with a barren acoustic guitar that slowly builds to an orchestral flourish just to fade away, mirroring the deep seated melancholy. Opening track ‘Hitch Hikin’ also hits this sweet spot, it is about a nomad travelling from place to place with the aid of his thumb and kindly passers by, with the soft and twinkly melody emphasising the evocative lyrics. The best is saved till last with ‘Moonlight Motel’, a lush yet minimalistic track helps tell a wistful tale of a now demolished motel and all the patrons of old.
Those tracks aside, the music on Western Stars is just too soft, too glossy and too uneventful to match Springsteen’s potent lyrical storytelling.