Secret Meeting score: 85
by Phil Scarisbrick
For the last few years, Bruce Springsteen has teased fans about a completed ‘solo’ album that he had sitting in the vault: one that was like nothing else he’d ever done. That album, it transpired, would be called Western Stars. The new record sees the soon-to-be-seventy-year-old combine lush, cinematic soundtracks with tales of love for Californian sun, and what happens when things go sideways. As somebody who steered his way around America with his work of the last half century, he has finally found his way to the Golden State, and the results are some of the most vital work he has done in years.
Tales of broken hearts, vagabonds, drifters and even a stuntman take us on a journey that is as interesting as it is beautiful. Opening track, Hitch Hikin’, goes straight for the jugular as John Williams-esque strings punch their way through the finger-picked acoustic guitar and banjo. The influences clearly stem from the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach, yet at no point does it feel dated. Tucson Train’s infinitely catchy string refrain recalls Lonesome Day from The Rising in the way it carries the song. The whole record displays a voice that wears its age as a badge of honour, but on no song more so than the album’s title track. The slow-burning country number is packed with references to ‘cowboys’ and ‘John Wayne’, and confirms how big a departure this record is for Springsteen.
There Goes My Miracle recalls Roy Orbison in its vocal delivery, and certainly displays chops it would often be hard to imagine from Springsteen. Stones combines melancholy and defiance as he sings, “They’re only the lies that you told me,” one of the most affecting songs on a record packed with incredibly affecting songs. First Single, Hello Sunshine’s rolling snare, two-step bassline, lightly strummed acoustic and piano sit below a restrained vocal that makes this understated anthem work even better in the context of the full record. The album’s fitting closer, Moonlight Motel, brings the stories to a close. Packed with imagery of a “Pool filled with empty, eight foot deep/Dandelions grow up trough the cracks in the concrete/Chain fence half rusted away/Now the sign says children be careful how you play” shows Springsteen hasn’t lost his knack for created rich vignettes that makes the listener total invest in the story he’s telling.
As much as Western Stars is like nothing else he’s done, it also feels totally familiar. Bruce Springsteen the storyteller has never gone away, and the tales he tells here paint three dimensional characters in a range of engaging scenarios that all fall back into what underpins all of his work. The ability to love and live in America. It is a powerful statement from Springsteen, and although this record may be a one off in terms of the world and sound that he explores, it is a worthy addition to one of the most fierce back catalogues in popular music.