Bruce Springsteen may well have picked the perfect time for his cowboy album. The American archetype is getting a bit of a re-evaluation in pop culture right now, as modern artists channel the figure’s connotations and breathe new life into it. Chief among them is contemporary rapper Lil Nas X, who proudly sports a cowboy hat in the swash-buckling video for his viral smash ‘Old Town Road’. Earlier this year, that song provoked a long-overdue discussion around country music gatekeepers. Meanwhile, artists like Solange, Mitski, Cardi B and more continue to reassess and challenge its conventions, reinventing the tired old tropes.
If you’re expecting the Springsteen to do something similar on ‘Western Stars’, his 19th studio album, you might be looking in the wrong place. This is an album that plays into the Western stereotypes of travelling to deserted plains via winding train journeys, then staying in sticky motels and frequenting the charming local spots. In an accompanying note to the album, he describes it as a set of “character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements” that touch on familiar territory for him and the cowboy: home, isolation, graft and community.
‘Western Stars’, his first without the E Street Band since 2005’s ‘Devils and Dust’, is well worth a ride. It features some of his most confident ‘solo’ work ever and is remarkably consistent in the face of his recent mediocre material in recent decades. Perhaps inspired by his time performing on his much acclaimed one-man show on Broadway, it seems that the enduring figure is comfortable going it alone on this occasion.
Going “solo” in Bruce terms means something quite different than it does for other artists. In his storming autobiography Born To Run, he details the relationship between himself and his musical brothers. They’ve been a key part of the songwriting and recording process since 1973, offering arrangement tweaks and ego-checks, making them much more than just a set of hired guns.
His outings without them have been mixed in their quality, though. The storytelling on 1980’s minimal masterpiece ‘Nebraska’, is bolstered by the intimacy of the recording sessions, which were undertaken alone in his hotel room. The similarly sparse ‘Devils & Dust’, however, feels like Satan is relentlessly prodding you in the arse with a pitchfork for 50-minutes. That is, of course, no fun.
As a result, Bruce goes wandering off in all directions on ‘Western Stars’, taking in new pastures. The breezy ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ is a lovely, albeit slightly garish thing, packed with ticklish banjo work and delightful accordion; ‘Moonlight Motel’, meanwhile, is a startling moment of beauty that pairs restrained guitars with wonderful orchestration. On ‘Hitch Hikin’, Bruce isn’t quite sure where he’s going, but that’s all a part of the journey: “Maps don’t do much for me, friend / I follow the weather and the wind”. Few of these songs exceed a steady gallop, but the scenery and songcraft make it worth sticking around for.
Most importantly, it’s pleasing that Bruce hasn’t overthought these songs – they’re sleek and grand in the nature, but loose enough to keep it fresh. A slow-burning approach is abandoned halfway through ‘The Wayfarer’, a devilishly catchy number that explodes with bombast. Lead single ‘Hello Sunshine’ is minimal in its production, but dominated by his grisly croon.
Majestic in its scale, but traditional in its subject matter and narratives, ‘Western Stars’ is a wonderful thing. It perfectly leads into his reunion with the E Street Band, with whom he’ll be heading into the studio to work on album 20 later this year. The Boss rambles on; on this evidence, his next journey will be some trip.