Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars - Album Review

As bland as On Broadway was riveting.

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Bruce Springsteen has been focused on himself lately. For his 2017 memoir, Born to Run, he released a compilation album featuring five previously unheard songs from early in his career, meant to shed light on a time many view as the beginning of something greater. Before then, he was dropping infrequent rock records like Wrecking Ball and High Hopes, each forgettable and interesting in their own ways. Most significantly, however, was his stint on Broadway as a one-man-show, playing songs from across his career emphasizing the fact that without him, there would be no show. For fans of low-key albums like Nebraska, these releases are exactly the Springsteen outings we desire. Peeks into his growth, his state of mind; they remain as captivating as his songwriting, and at this point in his career, I’d have been the last to predict that the Boss would go back to his mid-2000’s slump.

Teased as a record in line with 1982’s brilliant Nebraska, Western Stars is about half slow songs, half working-class anthems. Springsteen has been known to elaborate, giving plenty of time to epitomize his vision before closing things out. Western Stars is no exception; at 13 songs resulting in roughly an hour total, it’s already 10 minutes longer than Nebraska. Say what you will about album lengths and their importance, but Western Stars is too long for its own good. It begins with a proud vocal, twangy acoustic picking, and glockenspiel, eventually whirling into a string-backed anthem that feels more like a parody of past Springsteen than anything else. A songwriter can always return to fertile pastures, but lines like “Maps don’t do much for me friend” just don’t resonate the same way they did when Bruce was 25.

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Inspiration has proven to be a difficult mountain for Springsteen to climb. His previous albums (many of them brilliant) exist mostly as Born to Run and Born in the USA in the minds of the people, and the songs on Western Stars seem to be pining for the same kind of fist-pumping, relatable mojo as the former, minus the energy and songwriting ability that made it a classic. Instead of “Thunder Road,” we’re given “Tucson Train,” or the worst example, “Sleepy Joe’s Café,” a relentlessly tired pick-me-up that delivers maybe the worst chorus of Springsteen’s career. It’s not as lyrically fraught as “Queen of the Supermarket,” but hearing Springsteen poorly retread material he practically defined is rough.

What Western Stars lacks is inspiration. There isn’t much redeeming about the instrumentation, which begins nearly every song with grand piano or acoustic shuffles. Lyrics don’t fare much better, and Bruce’s songwriting feels stuck in that “album closer that reminds you why you loved the artist in the first place” feeling. The terrible background vocals, excruciatingly bland lyrics (“Came into town with a pocketful of songs”), they add up. It would be dangerous to write off Bruce Springsteen as gone for good, but when he’s reliving his past in such an uninspired way, it almost makes you wish he had stopped 20 years ago.