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story.lead_photo.caption Bruce Springsteen performed for the Stand Up for Heroes Benefit in New York in 2018. His new album, Western Skies, is a new direction for the singer-songwriter. Photo via AP

A- Bruce Springsteen

Western Stars

Columbia

Bruce Springsteen's new album breaks fresh ground for the veteran rocker, who turns his back not only on the blistering sound of the E Street Band but also abandons the haunting acoustic moods pioneered on Nebraska and fine-tuned on later solo efforts.

After the soul-searching, confessional tone of his best-selling autobiography and sold-out Broadway show, Springsteen's Western Stars relies on an unfamiliar orchestral approach that somewhat masks the singer and is devoid of driving beats, sax solos and rock 'n' roll tropes.

Instead, he draws on the rich tradition of California-style, pre-Beatles pop. There are hints of Roy Orbison's soaring vocals and Brian Wilson's pocket symphonies, but the lyrics are pure Springsteen. Beneath the glossy sheen are the taut narratives, introspection and ambiguous moments familiar to longtime listeners. His storytelling skills are as strong as ever, just presented in a different way.

He's paying homage to an era when the single reigned, and radio airtime went a long way to determining an artist's success or oblivion, but Springsteen is not looking for No. 1 hits with easy hooks. Western Stars is understated, without over-the-top orchestration or hyperbole. Each song stands alone as a self-contained story; taken as a whole it's a panorama of loneliness and heartbreak. The protagonists are mostly men, and mostly beaten down, but there are occasional whiffs of freedom, usually tied to the joys of the open road, that most enduring of American myths.

It is no accident that the album opens with "Hitch Hikin'" and this straightforward image of a loner in perpetual motion: "Thumb stuck out as I go/I'm just travelin' up the road/Maps don't do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind." It's a recurring image dating back to the days of Woody Guthrie.

There are other fully formed characters from Springsteen's imagination: the failed country music songwriter, his lyrics rejected at every turn, the busted up B-movie stuntman held together by rods and pins, even a rundown hotel with an empty swimming pool with dandelions pushing up through the cracked concrete takes on a life of its own as a character in "Moonlight Motel."

But it's not all heartbreak. There are small celebrations, too, notably in "Sleepy Joe's Cafe," where working men and women can find solace on the dance floor when weekend comes. Springsteen has placed it in the context of the postwar economic boom that powered America for decades: "Joe came home in'45 and took out a G.I. loan/On a sleepy little spot an Army cook could call his own/He married May, the highway come in and they woke up to find they were sitting on top of a pretty little gold mine."

It's a nostalgic vision, but those roadhouses still exist. You just have to drive a bit.

Hot tracks: "Hitch Hikin'," "Moonlight Motel," "Sleepy Joe's Cafe"

— GREGORY KATZ

The Associated Press

Photo via AP
Photo via AP

B+ Justin Rutledge

Passages

Outside Music

Justin Rutledge stands in a strong tradition of literate Canadian singer-songwriters — think Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell or the late Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. Like the Hip, whose Rob Baker plays guitar on Rutledge's new album, he deserves to be better known outside his homeland.

Rutledge's roots are in alt-country, and like the best country songwriters he has a knack for lyrics full of doubt and loss, set to jaunty tunes. It's angst you can hum along to.

On Passages, Rutledge worked with a new band and producer (Chris Stringer). Guitar-dominated, seasoned with piano and strings, the album sometimes achieves an Eagles-y Californian vibe: layered and ambient, with an intoxicating sheen.

There's a languid melancholy to songs like "Captive" and "Weight of the World," while the title track is a wistful love song delivered with Beatles-esque strings.

Rutledge's lyrics are simultaneously mysterious and vivid, and while his songs are often introspective, they are also fun. He rocks out enjoyably on the spirited, slide guitar-fueled "Good Man" — the first single — and the self-questioning anthem "Chains."

There has always been a strong literary strain in Rutledge's songs, and his latest album ends with "Boats," a track co-written by Booker Prize-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje.

Lyrically and melodically gripping, Passages is the musical equivalent of a page-turner.

Hot tracks: "Captive," "Chains," "Boats"

— JILL LAWLESS

The Associated Press

SINGLES

• Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, "Prove You Wrong." Here's a big, gleaming bulldozer of a song, built for loudness-wars radio and women's self-sufficiency: "I got my mind made up and my high heels on." It's a Rolling Stones-y stomper from Sheryl Crow's coming album of collaborations, Threads; she has said it may be her last full-length album statement in an era of lone songs and playlists. Crow, Maren Morris and Stevie Nicks harmonize to tell some guy that, actually, he's not going to be crushingly missed; Joe Walsh and Vince Gill provide guitars that slide and crunch. It sounds huge and happy.

— JON PARELES

The New York Times

• Luke Combs, "Even Though I'm Leaving." Luke Combs has one of the most emotionally tactile voices in contemporary country music. Here, he applies it to a classic mid-2000s-style country song in which the main motif changes meaning from one verse to the next — the father leaves the son as a child, the son leaves the father when he grows up, and then the father dies. Throughout, even at his most tender, Combs is firm, stepping into the rawness of the feeling, not away from it.

— JON CARAMANICA

The New York Times

Style on 06/18/2019

Print Headline: The Boss tries new approach on Stars

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