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'Western Stars' review: Bruce Springsteen's stunning new approach

Bruce Springsteen's "Western Stars" on Columbia Records.

Bruce Springsteen's "Western Stars" on Columbia Records. Credit: AP trunkarchive./Kalle Gustafsson


"Western Stars"

BOTTOM LINE A gorgeous, melancholy tribute to aging, broken men, who are down, but not defeated

Bruce Springsteen likes to take artistic left turns after his biggest successes. And his new album “Western Stars” (Columbia) follows in the tradition of “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as a new approach no one saw coming, following his well-received autobiography and the unprecedented Broadway run it spawned.

For “Western Stars,” Springsteen pairs the orchestral grandeur of early 1970s greats like Harry Nilsson and the collaborations of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb with tales of men trying to cope with lives, knowing they are past their prime. The title track is about an actor best known for being shot by John Wayne now peddling erectile dysfunction medication. “Somewhere North of Nashville” is about a struggling songwriter’s regrets, including, “I traded you for this song.” And “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” is about a stuntman trying to find moments of happiness to hang onto, a time when the orchestral swells of the string sections are merited.

The stuntman narrator of “Drive Fast” is like nearly all of the subjects in “Western Stars,” ready to admit his mistakes, but not looking for pity. “A steel rod in my leg,” sings Springsteen, who turns 70 in September, “but it walks me home.”

The album’s strongest moments are the first singles – the relatively upbeat and wistful “Hello Sunshine,” which is reminiscent of Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind,” and the magnificent “There Goes My Miracle,” which includes backing vocals from Patti Scialfa and Seaford native Matthew Koma, who help create a unique hybrid of Smokey Robinson classics and The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee.” However, every song on “Western Stars” has its own bit of magic, a line or an instrumental passage (like the stunning opening of “Sundown”) that makes you understand why it’s included and what it contributes to Springsteen’s overall point.

Sure, many fans are more excited by the news that Springsteen and The E Street Band will record a new album and tour. But “Western Stars” shines brightly enough to thrill on its own.

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