Ten Albums of 2019 Recommended – No. 3

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

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Pedal Steel and Strings

He is the Boss. He can do what he likes. He has.

One of those ‘likes’ is to set up a battle between pedal steel and pop orchestration. I will need to listen to the whole album a few times to acclimatise myself to this conflict, and to decide if the dichotomy is less so and more a synergy. We shall see.

Opener Hitch Hikin’ is a remarkably simple melody, plucked banjo in the back, a rise up and down made great by the distinctive vocal, beautifully sung. Strings do sweep with the sway, but this is carried on the homely highway bound, dashboard picture of a pretty girl narrative of all our nostalgic listener’s hitchhiking memories. Second The Wayfarer foregrounds more string sweeps and a punchy piano start, a breezy popish tune embracing the Springsteen drawl and then string surges that surprise. Remember, this is an early response. I am on the second listen and I’m not swept away yet. Horns have just joined the wayfarer’s pop sojourn. It could be a 60s Western film score. Third Tucson Train has Springsteen in more strident vocal, horns a little pretty in the mix, but an echoing guitar anchoring to expectations. Its storytelling builds into the whole and is emboldened by it.

The album’s title track is fourth on the album, and we are in Nebraska, that’s Nebraska-esque musical territory. Chug-strummed acoustic guitar. I don’t know if that’s a term, but it is those forward, percussive strums. Pedal steel haunts. This is beautiful.

Here’s to the cowboys, and the riders in the whirlwind
Tonight the western stars are shining bright again
And the western stars are shining bright again

Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds
The western stars are shining bright again
C’mon and ride me down easy, ride me down easy, friend
‘Cause tonight the western stars are shining bright again

I woke up this morning just glad my boots were on

This is a man/artist glad to be alive and recalling and sharing and so are we. Fifth Sleepy Joe’s Café celebrates I hope a great place because the gesture will be more memorable than the music.

Then it’s Drive Fast (The Stuntman), another persona narrating a life lived hard, survived and again glad to be alive, carpe diem as a means of forgetting the scars because that is in the past. Pedal steel drives here too, as it should. Seventh Chasin’ Wild Horses is going to be a favourite, a classic Springsteen descending melody, the vocal matured in its storytelling, and yes, pedal steel a yearn of sound remembering as well. Banjo too. Simple plucks, but announcing the first contest where orchestral strings swarm all over the pedal steel’s lamenting, a pop sweetness I might learn to lose myself in, but not just yet as a further soar seems too paradoxical with its portentous timpani roll and then horns – and wait for it, the pedal steel comes in at the end like a slow train passing by. This seems to segue seamlessly into next Sundown, a clear echo of Campbell and Webb, something filmic in the breezier pop orchestrations of this accompaniment. This isn’t the anthemic sound of Born in the USA where the big build has a different depth and punch; and it isn’t wall of sound either – I don’t think – but with the chorus and its vocal/lyric mirrors there is a pop sensibility winning.

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Therefore, aware perhaps of my and others’ questioning, next Somewhere North of Nashville is back to Springsteen in emotively strained voice, pedal steel having pushed the entire orchestra aside.

Stones is the tenth track and as yet there isn’t a stand-out but there is a sustained quality, as we would expect, despite the ‘battle’ of backgrounds I have set as the ruse for this review. Though I have quoted lyrics from the title track and narrative hints from others, this is another element that grows with listening. On this track, strings again feature as an orchestral feature that I don’t get. They aren’t – and probably can’t be – adornments to songs in the way George Martin worked it all those years ago. And here a solo violin is accompanied by a ‘cowboy’ twang of guitar, that Campbell/Webb influence again. It does seem incongruous.

There Goes My Miracle is the most perfected as a pop ballad, a strange vocal echoing of the main line, and a sense of grandeur attempted from the late Scott Walker template, though not as resonant in tone or execution. Perhaps I have the reference point wrong – the precursors are many and anathema. It is pleasant enough. The penultimate track is Hello Sunshine and an up/down bass line precedes pedal steel that comes around like a welcome touchstone of history. Strings sweep through again as an inevitability. Robert Frost would smile at the lyrics, and there is no harm in this, though having invoked the poet I am not sure he would lean all that far to the hopeful philosophy.

So the acoustic pluck of closer Moonlight Motel, matched along the melodic line by Springsteen’s gentle singing, pulls me in again to what I want and like the most. And pedal steel wins here, though the competition doesn’t exist anyway. Cymbals shimmer instead. Lovely.

In the middle of writing this review, my vinyl copy arrived, a great picture of Springsteen averting his gaze on the back, Stetson-of-sorts pulled down with a bowed head as well. It will probably stay wrapped for keeping, those strings unlikely to take on a more fulsome and welcome existence by the turntable’s playing.

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[What follows is a subsequent, brief review which would go some way to explaining how this albums makes my No.3]:

 Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars, the film version

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Orchestral Cowboy

The introductory orchestral sweeps seem to be announcing widescreen blockbusters at the drive-in, and you can hear the Country guitar-twangs even though this is only strings.

My initial reaction to Western Stars was a little reserved, probably a little critical, but that was down to interruptus expectation, and as is often the case with great albums [I’ll mention now Neil Young with Crazy Horse Colorado which sounded at first insubstantial but is in its simplicity and after further listening totally gorgeous] Springsteen’s latest has grown hugely on me.

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This has been furthered with this filmed-in-a-barn live set, again with orchestra and backing singers and cowboys riding all over the strawfloor’n’plains metaphor, and each by now familiar symphonic intro and/or sudden interjection signals that great personal delight.

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