Sunday, July 21, 2019

Western Stars

My first listen was uninterrupted, and the whole thing kind of faded together into one wall of country-tinged adult-contemporary sound. 

The second listen was broken up over multiple days, so I could focus on some individual songs a bit more closely — after all, a ninth track or something might stand out more if you’re listening to it right off the bat, rather than 40 minutes into one full-on listen that has already made your attention wander. 

The third listen was broken up over two long drives in one day, with the front half and back half of the album falling roughly an hour apart once I’d finished up my chores.  (These chores included a brief trip to Walmart, so admittedly I might not have been in the best mental state for that second half of the album, given that my soul was crushed and all.)

But I think I’ve given “Western Stars” enough of a fair shot to say that, unfortunately, it’s not very good.  It’s definitely in that lower tier of Springsteen albums that generally consist of most of his more low-key, experimental-ish type of material, with the gigantic exception of the classic that is “Nebraska.”  I say “experimental” just in the sense that they’re not the traditional E Street Band vein, not that Bruce is suddenly recording an operatic record or a hip-hop album or something.

Like all of these albums, Western Stars just lacks that bit of extra spark.  If I had to pick its closest comparable, it’s probably the mediocre “Working On A Dream” album from 2007, though at least Western Stars generally avoids the story-song pitfalls of Queen Of The Supermarket or Outlaw Pete.  I’m not sure if Joe Posnanski’s old rant about Outlaw Pete is available somewhere or if it’s behind his blog’s paywall, but man, when a Springsteen superfan like Joe is inspired to write a long post about how one of Bruce’s new songs is singularly terrible, you know something went awry.

While the end result wasn’t my cup of tea, I still give Bruce points for stretching his legs and continually trying something new with his music.  He is Bruce freakin’ Springsteen, after all.  He is 69 years old.  He has zero to prove to anyone.  It would be very easy for him to coast on his past successes, but as much as Bruce is defined by the arena-rockin’ E Street sound, he has always been throwing curveballs along with his fastb…er, excuse me, any Springsteen post has to use the weird phrasing from Glory Days…speedballs for his entire career.  Sometimes the curveballs fall flat, like Western Stars, Devils & Dust to some extent, and (let’s be honest) basically everything Bruce recorded from 1988-2001.  But sometimes those curveballs lead to incredible albums like Nebraska, Tunnel Of Love, or Wrecking Ball.

I can’t say I love every direction Springsteen’s music takes, but I love that it’s still moving.

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