The Panoramic Close-up of Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars

John J. Thompson

Good artists tap into the prevailing zeitgeist with songs and sounds that resonate with modern ears and minds. Great artists transcend the trends and offer up work that audiences didn’t even know they needed. Great artists are exceedingly rare.

On Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen’s first solo album of original material in 14 years, The Boss has crafted something truly unique in his nearly 50 year career; a total surprise. Maybe his two-year stint on Broadway got under his skin, or maybe it was the work that went into his incredible, 500-plus page memoir Born To Run, but Springsteen has gone full Romantic on us.

Western Stars sounds more like the scores of epic Western films and classic Nashville via California albums by artists like Glen Campbell than anything in the New Jersey native’s expansive catalog. Yet, somehow, every moment on this frequently breathtaking album sounds perfectly Bruce-like. It’s both honest and, as he so winsomely admitted in both the book and his one-man Broadway show and Netflix special, a completely fabricated experience.

You can almost see the silver screen rippling behind the characters he projects here. More importantly, though, you can feel the deep sense of honor and care with which he presents these beautiful, lost, broken people. In every aspect of the album’s craft, there’s a reminder for us to consider and respect the complex image of God in those we encounter, particularly those in which it might not be readily apparent.

It’s certainly no surprise to hear Springsteen sing about characters. He’s been doing that since day one. The storytelling on Western Stars, however, shifts subtly but significantly from his usual approach. We’re given sepia-toned snapshots of a washed-up actor, a truck driver, a hitchhiker, a stuntman, a songwriter, a cowboy and other souls wondering and wandering somewhere toward the end of their respective lines.

If you don’t look too closely, it sounds like the least personal album Springsteen has ever offered. But a closer listen suggests that there’s probably more of the real Bruce in each of these fictional wayward souls than in many of those earlier songs we thought were so revealing. Whether or not Springsteen’s looking toward the imago dei in Western Stars, there is some kind of holiness at work here.

You can feel the deep sense of honor and care with which (Springsteen) presents these beautiful, lost, broken people.

Some of this holiness comes through the album’s grand production. Nearly every track is graced by a full orchestra. Not just four or eight string players tracked over and over, but an orchestra with brass and timpani and woodwinds. Very few artists could even afford to make an album this lavish anymore, and that’s reason enough for every serious songwriter and musician to listen closely to it. Grammy-winning producer Ron Aniello pulled out all the stops. Some tracks feature backing singers that show up for just a few phrases, or B3 organ tracks way in the background during the fade out. Pedal steel guitars blend with violins seamlessly. Everything about the record sounds rich, golden, and important – but never ostentatious. This is masterful production of masterful songs, and Springsteen has never sung this clearly.

The result is an unmistakable sense that these characters, as worn-out and disheveled as they may be, deserve some respect. In much the way a master photographer can make a common object look beautiful, Springsteen and Aniello, along with dozens and dozens of musicians and engineers, have framed these songs perfectly. This kind of luxuriance seems intentionally designed to demonstrate that these people, failure and all, are worthy of honor.

The album opens with a folky tune called “Hitch Hikin’” in which our protagonist catches a ride with three different drivers. From there it’s off to the races, in scene after elegiac scene. Toward the home stretch of the 13-song collection the narrative becomes downright ecclesiastical. “Somewhere North of Nashville,” the grittiest, darkest, and shortest of the songs here, spotlights the lament of a songwriter who sacrificed everything in search of a hit, and then looks back wondering if it was worth it all.

“Stones” is next, with a beautiful and terrible metaphor for the way lies sink us and the relationships we crave so deeply. “There Goes My Miracle” shimmers with a 60s gleam, a melody that would have made Roy Orbison proud, and a lyric that is all lament. “There goes my miracle, walking away,” he croons. But the lyric that may serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone for much of the album slips by in the song’s bridge.

“Heartache, heartbreak

Love gives, love takes

The Book of Love holds its rules

Disobeyed by fools

Disobeyed by fools”

Job could sing along with that one.

“There Goes My Miracle” leads us into “Hello Sunshine,” a seeming prayer that recognizes self-destruction (possibly Springsteen’s own struggle with depression,) and seeks an end to the darkness before “Moonlight Motel” closes things out on a truly heartbreaking note. A place that had once been the scene of passionate trysts, (broken covenants, perhaps?) falls into the same disrepair as the relationship it spawned.

Through the marriage of lyric, melody, accompaniment, and production, Bruce Springsteen has produced a genuinely amazing reflection on the inherent beauty of humanity, our shared hunger for transcendence, and even, ever so slightly, the idea that somewhere behind the screen there is a book of love with guidance for those who would seek it. There is a rhyme to this poem if we search hard enough for it, and there’s even beauty in our failure when we lose the plot.

Topics: Music