I probably sound like a broken record here, but a new recording from Bruce Springsteen is always a welcome blessing for many of us who have followed his career since the beginning. Bruce has an uncanny ability to time his releases for moments when we need that lift most, celebrating the good, reflecting on the bad and powering through the darkness. Some listeners take in Bruce’s message from the lyrics while others absorb his spirit through the music. And when those two elements come together, well, magic happens.
Western Stars is one of those magic moments and is probably his strongest album since 2007’s Magic and 2009’s Working on A Dream. Part of the reason I liked those records so much was that they included bigger productions, with rich double tracked vocals, strings and an underlying vibe that at times recalled no less than his 1975 masterpiece, Born To Run. They aspired to a big sound, which is Bruce’ sweet spot. And while Western Stars is a very different album than Born To Run it is a big production with strings and epic song structures, yet there are plenty of breathing spaces. Bruce’s singing is especially relaxed and flowing here in a way I haven’t heard in a while.
I’ve read the buzz about this sounding like no other Springsteen record and such and in some ways that may be true — he uses Pedal Steel Guitar and twangy heavily reverbed electric guitar signatures here to great effect. He has been brewing this sound for a while (check out “Hey Blue Eyes” from 2014’s American Beauty EP which pre-echoes some flavors on this album). But, at the end of the day Western Stars is simply a classic Bruce Springsteen album, perhaps the best forward looking snapshot reflection of everything he’s done over the years. I can totally hear this music being brought to life on stage by Bruce’s E-Street Band (which I very much look forward to on their tour next year).
While Springsteen has had his moments channeling vintage rock ‘n roll with homages to no less than Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, this album seems to use composer/producer Jimmy Webb as its ground zero, the force behind many epic songs by the likes of The Fifth Dimension, Richard Harris and Glen Campbell in the late 1960s. To that, throughout the album you’ll hear Glen Campbell-esque guitar textures which would probably make Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco and James Burton proud. There are sweeping string sections and even an occasional female chorus “sha-la-la”-ing away in the background (“Sundown”).
Yet, there are stark Tom Joad/Nebraska-esque moments featuring predominantly guitar-and-vocal (“Somewhere North of Nashville”). I really love the fat strumming acoustic guitar bed underlying “The Wayfarer”
Repetitive arpeggiated synthesizer and orchestral string hook riffs — which typified the sound of past Springsteen hits dating back to Born in the USA, Tunnel of Love and The Rising — appear on Western Stars frequently (“Stones,” “Tuscon Train,” “Western Stars”).
Happily, Bruce sequenced this album much like an old school album from the past, saving the big epic single moment “There Goes My Miracle” for the end (its on Side Four on the vinyl version). It is followed by the pitter patter pulse of “Hello Sunshine” which recalls Harry Nilsson’s version of Fred Neil’s classic “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
Interestingly Western Stars is a recording that sounds really nice played quietly late at night as much as it does played loudly in the car or on the home Stereo. Bruce’s vocals sound rich and relaxed throughout this album and the producers found the sweet spot on this mix where the music rocks yet you can hear all the lyrics clearly; the instruments are crisply defined but still feel natural and warm. Kudos to the engineers on this album for that rare achievement in these often harsh 21st Century digital-flavored times.
Western Stars is streaming up on Tidal in CD quality and for the most part it sounds quite good as 44.1 kHz, 16-bit streams go. If you have a subscription to Tidal, you can jump to Western Stars by clicking this link here. The included free 320 kbps / 44.1 kHz MP3 download also sounds pretty solid without significant harshness and that nasty over compressed digital edge that ruin most MP3s for me — this has proven to be fine for listening on the car stereo (which I have been doing a lot already!).
Happily, the vinyl version of Western Stars sounds much bigger still than the CD-quality stream with richer bass and midrange presence immediately evident. My copy on black vinyl is thick, quiet and well centered; there are colored vinyl variants available by mail-order, seemingly different versions for the US, Europe and Australia. This is one of the better sounding Springsteen albums of recent vintage, so unlike Magic, you can pump up the volume on this one without things falling apart.
Western Starsis a decidedly modern recording which in a single sweep recalls everything Bruce has done while breaking new ground for him as an artist. It is a great Springsteen album which takes you on a rich, almost cinematic journey, following American stories across open prairies and down city backstreets.
And in that way, Western Stars ranks among Springsteen’s finest epics.