Ed Power reviews Western Stars, an album expected to split opinon among fans of the Boss.
Bruce Springsteen has been trying out different things as he wends his way towards the twilight of his career.
His 2016 River tour broke with tradition by celebrating his past — he reprised the titular 1980 LP all the way through —rather than his present.
That was followed by a Broadway theatre residency where he looked back on his youth in New Jersey, pondering, in particular, his troubled relationship with his father.
But now comes perhaps the most striking departure yet: a shiny country rock album inspired by “the Southern California pop records of the late ’60s and early ’70s”.
At one level this is Springsteen returning to the mode of musical historian — the same guise he adopted for 2006’s folk revue We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
The difference is that where that project was all grit and Appalachian angst, Western Stars gleams with the lacquered brightness of a Cadillac tail fin.
That isn’t at all a bad thing — but it is a step outside that familiar blue-jeans image and Springsteen diehards may have to acclimate to the full-force jauntiness and the lyrics sprinkled in Hollywood glimmer.
“Thumb stuck out as I go, I’m just traveling’ up the road,” he sings on ‘Hitch Hikin’. In the abstract that may be a candidate for worst Springsteen lyric ever.
But in the context of the tune — a bouncy freewheeler that has not the slightest interest in beingauthentic or angsty — the thoroughly un-Springsteenian flippancy makes perfect sense.
He’s still heading down the highway on ‘The Wayfarer’, which unfolds like a rural-gothic Beach Boys, complete with ornate strings and bonus cringing wordplay (“When I go to sleep, I can’t count sheep… I’m a wayfarer baby’). Somewhere a 1970s soap opera is missing its theme song.
Western Stars is perhaps best enjoyed as classy pastiche. Slide guitar and kitsch orchestration whip up a pleasing soufflé on ‘Wild Horses’.
And Bruce is truly on the loose on ‘Somewhere North of Nashville’, a campfire singalong where he adopts the gravelly tones of a crooning cowboy. The faded glamour of New Jersey has never felt so far away.
No matter the avenue he has ventured down Bruce Springsteen has always sounded an awful lot like Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps that’s whyWestern Stars feels so radical.
It’s a Springsteen album that has no interest in being a Springsteen album.
Inevitably fans are going to be divided down the middle.
But those prepared to indulge the singer will find that, under the rhinestone and the wide-brimmed hats, stands an artist who has decided he’s had enough of being himself and wants to try on someone else’s persona for size.