I really didn’t know what to expect from this album. Readers will remember how I panned the first single “Hello Sunshine,” and the follow up single “There Goes My Miracle” didn’t inspire much more hope. But the third single, “Tucson Train,” inspired hope in me that some tracks on this album could be more of a throwback to The Rising than a neutered version of Devils and Dust, which was an album I didn’t think was spectacular to begin with. And as the early reviews started trickling in, and Classic Rock Magazine and Greasy Lake weren’t the only ones who thought it was spectacular, I started to really not know what to expect.
This is probably the best solo album of Springsteen’s for fans of his E Street work. The sparseness that defined Tom Joad could sometimes be off putting for those used to a busier sound like on The River or even The Rising. The horns and strings, while potentially cringeworthy to fans of his 70s work, are very much in the vein of his two 21st century comeback albums, The Rising and Wrecking Ball. Indeed, this is the successor to Wrecking Ball I was hoping for but not expecting until his fall recording session with the E Street gang. Perhaps more nostalgic than Wrecking Ball, Western Stars doesn’t often venture into the overly saccharine. It feels very much like Bruce went on a Jackson Browne binge, diving deep into For Everyman and Late For The Sky in particular.
Everything on Western Stars feels grand. It’s as if every track has the scope of “Jungleland.” None of the desperation or rush from that song is present, but I can’t think of a better song to compare it to in sheer grandiosity. Even Wrecking Ball struggled to find a sound so large and so warm. “Land of Hope and Dreams” feels like “Highway Patrolman” in space compared to something like “Sundown.”
I saw one Twitter user say that Western Stars is the fulfillment of the ambition of Working on a Dream, which I can certainly hear. The tone in Springsteen’s voice, the arrangements, the songwriting — it’s all very much in the same mood and school as that 2009 album. But while the execution of Working on a Dream fell short on every front (save for that bluesy oddity that was “Good Eye”) resulting in a sloppy album that felt phoned in, Western Stars pulls them off perfectly. Working was half rock and half country/blues in a way Bruce really didn’t know how to pull off, but Western Stars goes for a straight countrypolitan sound that he nails. Perhaps it was worth suffering through Working on a Dream so we could reach this artistic height.
Stars nails atmosphere in a way almost unprecedented in Springsteen’s discography. It feels wrong to listen to this album indoors. I spent much of the night it came out on my porch soaking in the moonlight because it just felt more appropriate than listening to it in a stuffy room — not unlike how I crawled out onto the roof to listen to Born to Run the first time 7 years ago, or how I would wander the backstreets of Brighton listening to Hammersmith Odeon ‘75 around the same time.
The lyrics can fall a bit short of the musical magnificence. Some more poetry would go a long way for this album. It’s got all the romance of E Street Shuffle and Born to Run but with the rustic, working class themes of a Tom Joad. It works in a way, but I feel it would be more powerful if we heard about characters akin to The Magic Rat and Spanish Johnny rather than these cowboys. But I could also see how someone with stronger ties to this aesthetic would find the relatively mundane subject matter to be exceptionally powerful.
It’s hard to say if this is Springsteen’s greatest musical achievement (ie not including the autobiography) of the 21st century. As I write this it has been out for just 3 hours (and I’m already on my fourth listen to it). However, I would not be surprised if a year from now I’m touting it as his greatest work since 1982’s Nebraska, and it will definitely be on my Albums of the Year list in December.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.