Sundown

 

Bruce Springsteen’s new solo record “Western Stars” puts us inside the heads of lonely men adrift in an American West so picture-perfect it might as well be a movie set. Springsteen’s characters here are all variations on a dusty-booted theme: A wayfarer hitch-hikin’ down the highway; an aging movie stuntman with a steel rod in his leg; a has-been Western movie actor downing raw eggs before shooting a Viagra commercial. All of these men harbor regrets about broken relationships. They’re waiting on the Tucson train for redemption or hoisting a toast to an absent lover in a ratty motel room. Wild horses, coyotes, charros and steers make an appearance, as do truckers, bikers, a souped-up ’72, an El Camino and John Wayne.

The aging men of  “Western Stars” are free-falling towards obsolescence.  These characters are in constant motion, but it’s an illusion of motion, because they always end up in the same place — at the end of the line, unchained but tethered to the failures and regrets inside their own heads. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” is how Kris Kristofferson put it, in another time and place. The sadness on this record is palpable. Springsteen discussed his struggle with depression in his fine 2016 autobiography Born to Run and in “Springsteen on Broadway,” and while depression is never mentioned on “Western Stars,” it’s there, obliquely, in the cellos and minor chords and the self-imposed isolation of its characters.

Produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello (who also produced 2012’s “Wrecking Ball”), “Western Stars” is deeply layered with lavish strings, keyboards, horns and female backup singers; the orchestrations often do the emotional work of a film score. Here and there, a rugged, twangy guitar muscles into focus. The influences are obvious and worn proudly: Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain,” the “Midnight Cowboy” movie soundtrack, the wide open vistas of Aaron Copland’s America and the kind of sleek country-pop Glen Campbell made in the late ’60’s (there’s even a reference to a county lineman on “Sundown”). “Western Stars” contains some of Springsteen’s plushest, swankiest pop melodies — you can imagine ’60’s Sinatra swingin’ through “Sundown,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “The Wayfarer.”

And it all leaves me cold.

I’ve never had a reaction like this to any Springsteen record. I’ve been disappointed with Bruce albums (“Working on a Dream,” “High Hopes”) but I’ve never before been bored. I’ve never before felt let down. My problem (and judging from the near-uniformity of the positive critical response to the album, mine alone) is that the album strikes me as lovely but irrelevant. It’s reverential retro-ism, well-crafted artifice. “Western Stars” is not what I needed from Springsteen’s first studio album of new material since 2012, his first since that rough beast slouched into the White House. It gives me nothing I can use and I’m lost.

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Perhaps, two years into the chaos and darkness of Trumpism, I’ve lost my capacity to appreciate an elegy for idealized (fetishized?) archetypes of American manhood.

I tried hearing the record as a character study, a sequel to “Nebraska,” if you will. But these anonymous characters with their less-than-compelling stories are a road-weary blur;  there’s not a Johnny 99 or Joe Roberts in the bunch. The only guy who stands out is Sleepy Joe, owner of Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, simply because he has a name. Unfortunately, that name has become popularly associated with a lame-ass Twitter insult favored by our juvenile leader. Was a change of name out of the question?

Speaking of “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” (“There’s a place out on the highway ‘cross the San Bernardino line/ Where the truckers and the bikers gather every night at the same time …”), it’s on my very short list of Bruce songs that I never want to hear again, right up there with “Outlaw Pete” and “Queen of the Supermarket.” What a strangely uninspired jumble of forced gaiety – Cajun accordion! Vaguely south-of-the-border horns! – and recycled dancing-our-cares-away imagery. It sounds Springsteen-ish but not of Springsteen, and I find this weird and not a little alarming.

Lighten up, you say? OK, I tried to lighten up and escape into “Western Stars” as a note-perfect homage to a particular genre from the golden age of AM radio pop. I grew up with that sound. I know the symphonic soft-rock and country-pop hits of the era inside and out and there’s a place in my heart for them. And who doesn’t need an escape from this world we’re living in? “Western Stars” should have hit the bull’s-eye for me, and it doesn’t.

A homage to a specific sound and genre of the past — sure, bring it on. Just not now. The timing of this release is off. We needed something more from Springsteen at this crucial moment in the life of our democracy and, for that matter, the planet. We needed his first new recorded songs in seven years to acknowledge that shit’s gotten real since 2012. Instead, he has presented us with a diorama, airless, sealed up in a world of its own.

Maybe it’s just that Bruce has so accurately envisioned our current cultural and political moment that there’s nothing more to say. I hope that’s not true. But I can see how being so far ahead of the curve can be wearying. He made a whole record about bigotry and hatred toward migrants and the homeless 24 years ago (“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995). He debuted “American Skin (41 Shots),” his song about law enforcement brutality against people of color, in 2000, more than a decade before Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Philandro Castile. The searing and under-appreciated “Magic” album (2007) sounded the alarm at the exact moment when lawlessness became the guiding principle of the Republican Party. Marinate over this line from “Magic”‘s “Long Walk Home,” a response to Bush-Cheney’s adventures in Katrina neglect and Gitmo waterboarding, and consider how much farther we’ve fallen from the ideals of our founders since Springsteen wrote it: “Your flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” On “Death to My Hometown” from “Wrecking Ball” (2012) he called out the “robber barons” stealing this country from within, the oligarchic coup that happened without a shot fired or a dictator crowned. Except, since that song was recorded, a dictator was crowned. All of those records mean infinitely more today than they did when they were released.

I wanted to hear what Springsteen has to say about the dystopian hell that’s broken loose since 2016. I wanted an album of new material that engaged with the existential terror we’re living through, that articulated our anger and lifted it up and offered community. I wanted songs we could fight with, hope with. We’ve been traveling over rocky ground. Where’s the Bruce who wrote that hymn of comfort and persistence?

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Maybe the Springsteen I need will answer the call next year, if a rumored E Street Band tour comes to pass. He has been there for us before  — notably, after 9/11 (“The Rising”) and Katrina (“Magic” and his Seeger Sessions Band rewrite of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” comprise as efficient a dismantling of the G.W. Bush era as you could hope for). I get it, though. Bruce can’t save us from the mess we’re in now. And he can only make the album that he can make at any given time. This time, it was “Western Stars,” claustrophobic and sealed off from the world as it may be, and, on the surface, it hits the right notes: It sounds like a ’60s country-pop album.

But … hear me out. There was more to that genre than a big sound and a two-lane highway. Sometimes, a country-pop song would engage with the world in a way you never saw coming. Sometimes, shit got real.

In 1969, as the Vietnam War was raging, Glen Campbell recorded a Jimmy Webb song called “Galveston,” which, like Campbell’s previous Webb-penned hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” featured the deep twangs and lush strings that Springsteen recreates on “Western Stars.” Wrapped in a gorgeous, fluid Webb melody, Campbell sings as a man yearning for his idyllic home town on the Gulf Coast and the girl he left behind. And then in the second verse, comes the bombshell: “Galveston, oh Galveston/I still hear your sea waves crashing/While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/And dream of Galveston.”

Did you feel that chill? “Galveston” is a deceptively pretty song about a homesick, scared GI in Vietnam. The last verse goes, “Galveston, oh Galveston/ I am so afraid of dying/ Before I dry the tears she’s crying/ Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun/ At Galveston.” “Galveston” is one of the saddest songs ever recorded. Campbell’s soaring tenor on that last “oh, Galveston” made me cry when I was 12 and it makes me cry now. All the lush strings in the world can’t hide the horror of the situation the narrator finds himself in.

And yet, “Galveston” reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country and Easy Listening charts and number four on the Hot 100. Clearly, people were willing to accept the painful reality of war articulated in a hit song on AM radio. They wanted to hear Glen Campbell, one of the most successful entertainers of the time, acknowledge the world beyond Phoenix and Wichita. They needed a pop song’s reassurance that they were not alone in their worry and confusion, as the death tally of young men mounted, ideological chasms divided Americans and the world felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

I guess what I’m saying is, I wish that “Western Stars” had been Bruce’s “Galveston.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Sundown

  1. musiclicatacom July 5, 2019 / 1:56 pm

    Joyce! I love your writing! I love reading Mix Tape. It’s not just you. I don’t agree with your position on everything here, but I understand it. And I totally agree about Magic. In fact it’s in my CD player now. “Long Walk Home,” strikes a perfect chord today. AGAIN. That’s the hard part. We’re here now and it’s worse. When we thought Bush Jr. was the worst. Boy were we naive! But I honestly don’t know why he released this now. I think it was put together years ago. It’s like eating a box of candy. It’s super sweet when you dig into it, but it fades. Yes the melodies are gorgeous, and the lyrics certainly hit the mark. I think he’s got some new things bubbling up for E Street that may reflect what’s happening on a more political level. Or not. Who knows? I suspect he will though. We’ll just have to Wait. And. See. Keep the writing coming! I’m a fan!

  2. Dave Archambault July 5, 2019 / 4:07 pm

    I guess I’m thrown off by a semi negative review based upon the fact the album doesn’t fulfill something you felt you needed. And needed specifically from Bruce. Is pressure to fulfill a need like that realistic?

    Bruce is a writer/artist, and as such, he’s going to follow his muse. Sometimes, as readers/listeners, we can readily meet an artist where they are. Sometimes not. It took me two decades to appreciate Astral Weeks fully. Still, knowing the depth of Van’s other work, I never considered my lack of connection to be the shortcoming of the artist/album.

    I’m loving Western Stars more than any Springsteen album in decades. That’s not to say I’m more evolved…it just means my experiences at this time allow me greater appreciation. We are so so lucky to have him still recording art, vibrant art, at age 69.

    • Joyce Millman July 5, 2019 / 4:16 pm

      I wrote what I wrote because I believe that, yes, it is realistic to expect more from him, based on standards he set for himself in the past. Look, this is my opinion, and you have yours. Response to an album is a personal and subjective thing. You say you love it more than any Bruce album in decades. Why don’t you love Magic as much as I love it? Why don’t you love Seeger Sessions as much as I love it?

      • Paul Haider July 6, 2019 / 2:11 pm

        Joyce, you wrote the most accurate review of Bruce’s new album with objectivity that is rare from a genuine fan. Personally, I believe that Western Stars is Bruce’s weakest album since Human Touch in 1992 despite the painful memories of Working On a Dream in 2009. The fact that the new album remained on the shelf for nearly four years can only confirm the level of ambivalence experienced by Bruce with the knowledge that it was subpar material. My favourite song on the album is “Moonlight Motel,” and he followed the pattern of Working on a Dream to save the best song for last. Regardless, one great song does not redeem a lot of stinkers. Western Stars has many stinkers to create the foul stench associated with either manure from the horse on the cover of the album or human feces from the rider on the horse. Why is good luck associated with accidentally stepping in horse manure? Bruce stepped in it with his new album and is getting a free pass from the majority of music critics and his biased fans due to his earned status as a legend. The only other accurate review that I’ve read was written by Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, and he gave the album a total of two stars…for Western Stars that don’t shine as brightly as Bruce’s previous material. As it stands, Bruce’s best album of the 21st century is still Magic from 2007. A political album of angry and hard-driving rock songs performed by the E Street Band and produced solely by Steve Van Zandt for the next project sound better to my ears as a devout fan since June of 1984. The stars of the West could never shine as brightly at night as the sun on the Jersey Shore during the summer days. Better days will be shining through with Bruce’s next album if it contains better songs, a better producer(Stevie), and the E Street Band. Paul Haider, England

  3. Jeff Gemmill July 6, 2019 / 12:34 pm

    I often think half of the magic of music is made by the listener(s). Sometimes we’re in the right place to receive it, sometimes not. The Seeger Sessions, which you mention above, is a great example – it left me…not cold, but bored. It wasn’t until this year, in fact, when I heard something from it on E Street Radio, that I realized it might be better than I thought at the time. (In other words, give Western Stars 13 years. You’ll come around!)

    • Paul Haider July 6, 2019 / 1:56 pm

      Joyce’s review hit the nail directly on the head with an imperative hammer of objectivity from a genuine fan of Bruce’s work. Western Stars is one of Bruce’s weakest albums since Human Turd, uh, Touch from 1992. Although Working On a Dream was a weak album in terms of its subpar material, the music is enhanced by the E Street Band. In sharp contrast, Ron Aniello’s overproduction is used to conceal the weakness in a series of redundant and boring songs. Bruce had the material on the shelf for three to four years, and his ambivalence about releasing the album is justified. A good producer tell an artist when his or her music is subpar and should remain in the vaults; this is one of many reasons that Jon Landau would never serve as Bruce’s producer again after 1992. Given the lack of timely and relevant material for a highly political time in history, Bruce’s musical non-statement feels like an act of betrayal. Hopefully, Bruce has written better material for the next album that will be performed by the E Street Band; it is also hoped and prayed for Stevie Van Zandt to be the sole producer of the next album in the recording studio. Once again, Joyce isn’t the only fan who is disappointed. Cheers! Paul Haider, Weybridge(England)

      • Joyce Millman July 6, 2019 / 2:05 pm

        Re: SVZ – Steve’s new album Summer of Sorcery is the right album for where we are now. Great big messy record that I’m playing all the time. Passionate, political and it rocks. I don’t know where B and S are in their producing relationship these days, but when you said that about hoping SVZ produces next ESB, it gave me chills. I second.

      • Paul Haider July 6, 2019 / 2:34 pm

        My wife and I attended Stevie’s concert last month in London, and it was a huge disappointment. Bruce needs Stevie as a producer as much as Stevie needs Bruce for friendship…and money! When I met Stevie before his concert in July of 2018 at Shepards Bush Empire, I asked him about Bruce’s collaboration only with “Love On the Wrong Side of Town” in 1977; Bruce wrote the music, and Stevie wrote the lyrics was the answer from the man who was Miami then. However, I would get on my knees to beg Stevie for helping Bruce with the next album while changing the locks on the doors of the studio; Ron Aniello would be standing outside with a useless key. Finally, the man who became political in 1984 with Voice of American should remind the misunderstood Born in the USA guy from the same year that his best album in the 21st century is still the highly political Magic from 2007. It is high time for Bruce to deliver a musical rebuke of Trumpism and represent the FDR Democrat anthems in his songs while supporting Dems’ nominee who shares Bruce’s same initials but is far from being full of bullshit. Feel the Bern! Paul Haider(American expatriate from Chicago and democratic socialist who resides in England)

      • Joyce Millman July 6, 2019 / 2:44 pm

        Interesting exchange with SVZ.
        Well, we can only wait and hope for Bruce to speak up. I believe he will (when he appears at rallies for the Dem ticket of Harris and Warren or vice versa). 🙂

  4. Dave Archambault July 6, 2019 / 2:47 pm

    I realize it’s opinion. That’s what a review is. I’m questioning the validity of basing a review on whether it met a (Social? Political?) need the reviewer has. That’s what I’m questioning, not whether you like it or not.

    I’m also a huge fan of Ray LaMontagne. He also follows his muse. I’m mixed on his last three lps…but the opinion flows from other areas than did it meet a need I am imposing on his choice of writing topics.

    Anyway, I’m sorry if my post was taken as an attack or if the tone was hurtful. That was not my intent. Mainly, I was just wondering aloud about where the edge is to an album review. Maybe the more I think about it I’ll see your side more clearly.

  5. Bob McGraw July 6, 2019 / 10:55 pm

    I am in agreement with Joyce. As a huge fan l like
    Almost everything Bruce does, But working on
    A dream sucked! I hated the first two songs off this
    Album. I will admit I love the title track, Western Stars is a great song. But the rest? Blah.
    And it pains me to say that. I see all these wonderful
    Reviews of Western Stars, and I am like WTF?!

    And yes, we need a stinging rebuke of our idiot
    President who is destroying democracy and
    America!

    For the first time in my life I am ashamed and sad
    To be born in the USA!

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