Review Summary: A solid and promising return to form for The Boss.
It seems like every Bruce Springsteen album arrives on a crest of a hype bolstered by the hyperbolic statement "This is his best album since [insert pre-1990s' work here]." 2009's "Working on a Dream," for example, was greeted as a beautiful foray into 1960s' pop, and is now universally derided as his absolute worst album. The same fate befell 2012's "Wrecking Ball," as well as the slapdash outtakes record that was 2014's "High Hopes."
His latest effort, "Western Stars," has been met with similar acclaim, and I have to admit I tried to muffle my cautious optimism, despite three solid first singles ("Hello Sunshine," "There Goes My Miracle," and "Tuscon Train," all of which are among the album's better tracks). Even as more and more reviews piled in throwing the album praise, I still went in low expectations.
It is accurate that this is Springsteen's best album since 2007's "Magic"; that being said, that doesn't mean it's nearly as great as that record was. While the overall song quality is light years beyond "Working on a Dream," and the album as a whole a more cohesive and thematically consistent effort than "High Hopes," it still doesn't quite reach the lofty heights as his best work.
Still, when "Western Stars" is good, it's really good. The album's very best songs have Bruce successfully returning the piercing, vivid character studies whose surroundings, situations, and scars - both physically and spiritually - come to life in a cinematic fashion. These include the 'past his prime' actor of the title song and the wounded but persistent troubadour of "The Stuntman," both classic flawed Springsteen protagonists that earn a seat at the table with the ghost of Tom Joad and highway patrolman Joe Roberts.
What weighs the album down are some of the more forgettable tracks, such as the achingly redundant opener "Hitch Hikin'" and the godawful ballad, "Stones," which boasts one of the worst metaphors Bruce has ever used: "I woke up this morning, with stones in my mouth." Is that why your diction has always been spotty, Bruce. "Smoky Joe's Cafe" feels like a watered down version of much better songs, and "Chasin' Wild Horses" is about one 'down and out' dirge too many. Still, that leaves over half an album's worth of really solid material, and I haven't even gotten to the closer, the haunting "Moonlight Motel"; this is probably the first true masterpiece Bruce has written since "Long Walk Home." Few writers can portray loneliness and regret in such an affecting and empathetic manner as Bruce can, and he does so again with this heart breaker of a ballad.
Sonically, the album boasts a sweeping, grand sound, with lots of lush strings and triumphant horns coming in midway through each song. While it gets somewhat one-note after awhile, the arrangements are all well done and not overly bombastic, which was one of the primary problems with the similar sound he went for on "Working on a Dream." It also gives the album its own identity in Springsteen's canon, which is more than you can say for his last three records.
"Western Stars" may not be a grand slam, but it's a very solid effort that definitely represents a sort of return to form, and gives fans hope that, if he builds off the qualities of the album's better songs, he may have one more truly classic record to give us.