"The smell of eucalyptus bark and high grasses, that uniquely California smell, surrounded me and reminded me I was a stranger in a strange land."
-- Bruce Springsteen, writing about his first trip to the West Coast in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run
I still think in terms of record albums.
I am self-aware enough to know that this -- as a young writer for this newspaper put it the other day -- "carbon dates" me. While for most of my life the album was the prime product of what we called recording artists, it is a diminished concept these days. No one tours to support an album anymore, and few artists can claim to be supported by album sales. These days artists create tracks that listeners stream or (less often) download. The prime unit of pop music is once again the single, just like it was before the Beatles.
It's quaint to imagine owning a discrete object that stands for as marker of "your" music these days. Owning a wall of vinyl records now signifies your taste and advertises your wealth; it used to be de rigeur for anyone who meant to participate in the culture. Now an album is just a collection of tracks -- a "playlist" or a "mixtape" or the soundtrack to some visual enterprise. Consumers listen to music a la carte.
Though I "own" a couple hundred thousand songs ripped off CDs (and digitized off vinyl records and cassette tapes), mostly I use streaming services. I understand the implications for artists; I still legally download most of the music I listen to regularly, but as far as everyday listening goes, well, I make playlists.
But I still believe in albums, a collection of songs by an artist meant to be taken together. A lot of the playlists I make are albums. I have a Joni Mitchell Blue playlist, a bunch of Miles Davis playlists, a Bruce Springsteen Western Stars playlist.
Springsteen is one of those artists who continues to make real albums. (Of course he does; he's nearly 70 years old.) It's the way he approaches his art, the way he works through his material. Some songs fit together, others clash. You want to look for the resonances and the rhymes, find a way to make them add up to more than they might taken individually. You have to put the right songs in the right order.
He has done this with Western Stars, an outlier among Springsteen albums. Remember how Neil Young used to release dramatically different albums every year? After he signed to Geffen Records in the early '80s he released the synth-pop album Trans, followed by Everybody's Rockin' (rockabilly), Old Ways (country) and Landing on Water (new wave). Western Stars is like that.
Yet it holds together thematically, it's its own little universe. Springsteen has staked out a bit of psychic territory and populated it with characters who, whether they know each other or not, operate in the same moral climate, under the overseeing eye of their Big Daddy.
It's probably going too far to say Springsteen's West is like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Donald Harington's Stay More, but there's a sense that all the people he's writing and singing about on Western Stars look up at the same sky.
And there's a musical coherence that flows through the album as well, a kind of Laurel Canyon/Once Upon a Time in Hollywood vibe that's very different from the Jersey Shore noise we usually associate with Springsteen (even though he has occasionally dabbled with singer-songwriterism since 1982's Nebraska, and 1992's Human Touch contained some L.A. studio musician DNA).
Think Wrecking Crew, think Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb strings. This is Springsteen buffed up and polished, in a way that at first feels off-brand and frankly a little weird.
Yet after a few listenings -- it is a work that requires a few listenings, which will automatically disqualify it for a lot of people -- you start to warm to it, to get it. Springsteen's experience of the early '70s has worked its way to the surface, and it's hardly a stretch to connect his aging rock-star reality to the slipping-down film stars of another disrupted industry. Maybe if Springsteen had moved to San Mateo when his parents did in 1971, he might have evolved this way -- a little cooler and more laid-back.
Maybe you're less concerned with escaping to the Promised Land when, instead of growing up in a death trap/suicide rap like Freehold, N.J., your hometown is a pastoral paradise.
Anyway, the title song is the one that really connects -- it's about an old Western actor, maybe Sam Elliott had he not experienced his late career renaissance, running out the string with Viagra and credit card commercials, leveraging his C-list celebrity on some "lost sheep from Oklahoma" in a meat market club.
He understands the pathos of his situation, but he's happy to be above ground.
That's Jon Brion -- the film score ace, session player and producer -- adding Moog strings that sweep across a cinematic soundscape. Here Bruce is a simple singer, a voice surfing a tsunami of warm rolling pop syrup. That flows into the slight Farfisa-driven (Brion again) "Smokey Joe's Cafe," arguably one of the slightest songs Springsteen has ever recorded but redeemed by one of his purest vocal performances. Here and there you hear oboes and French horns.
I'd argue that Springsteen has always been an underrated singer -- the sheer power of his instrument has to count for something. On Western Stars he generally eschews the roughened, faux primitive Woody Guthrie-esque textures that have informed a lot of post-Born in the U.S.A. midtempo work for a smoother delivery that leans more toward Neil Diamond than Van Morrison. It's surprisingly effective once you let go of the idea that Springsteen is supposed to sing a certain way.
There's still some grit in his throaty goozle, but on a track like "Sundown" he demonstrates a supple croon. Springsteen isn't hiding behind his Telecaster or acoustic Takamine on these tracks -- picture him in headphones in an isolation booth, lyric sheet trembling in his hands. (This might be as close as we ever get (ever want to get) to Springsteen's version of Dylan's Frank Sinatra homages.)
There are no overarching themes here -- the best songs, "Drive Fast (The Stuntman)," "Chasin' Wild Horses," "Stones," and the title track -- are broken male narratives that could be considered Springsteenian, but the politics that seeps in is light and subtle enough. There's a line in "Western Stars" about "our American brothers" crossing "the wire" that clearly references Mexicans (who are, after all, North Americans) crossing the border.
But mostly this is an album about red rock twilights and closing times, hitchhiking kids and wayfarers who understand they're caught up in "the same old cliche." (He gets around-around-around: "a wanderer on his way, slippin' from town to town.")
Mostly it's a sonic experience, Springsteen's headphone album; a deliberately archaic experiment in time travel. What if Springsteen had been cradle-swapped with Jackson Browne? (Browne's about 11 months older.)
It's an album -- 51 minutes of music. It could be formatted onto a vinyl LP. There's some filler on it, a couple of deep cuts and -- like a lot of my favorite albums circa 1975 -- nothing that really jumps out as a potential hit. But it fills out the artist's catalog; it's interesting if you have been attending to the story, following Springsteen since he first popped up on the covers of Time and Newsweek on Oct. 27, 1975.
Bob Dylan allegedly saw those covers, and when asked about what he thought about the latest New Dylan, he said it was "good for business."
But he thought enough of Springsteen to invite him along on the Rolling Thunder Revue. Springsteen declined, citing some previous commitments -- his own tour, his own career.
It could have worked out differently, and maybe the best way to consider Western Stars is as a speculative take. It's an album by an old guy looking back, identifying with the guys he's singing about -- guys he has invented whose lives turned out differently than his did. But guys who still have their boots on.
Who still listen to record albums.
Style on 07/07/2019
Print Headline: Bruce's Western Stars its own universe