“Western Stars” arrives following the explicit autobiography and starkly staged sincerity of “Springsteen on Broadway,” even though it was in the works before those performances. Instead of trying to extend that revealing tour de force, the new album veers elsewhere; it’s an experiment in genre and narratives. Most (and perhaps all) of the songs are other people’s stories, not Springsteen’s own. In them, the West — California along with Arizona and Montana — can be a promise of open spaces and second chances. But more often, the western horizon is the end of the line, where Springsteen’s characters find themselves alone with their regrets.
The music itself is a kind of character study. It harks back to an early 1970s pop style that Springsteen — now 69, whose debut album appeared in 1973 — had nothing to do with at the time. “Western Stars” revisits a sound that found a place in Los Angeles studios — particularly in Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s and early 1970s — and in Nashville as a means to get country singers onto pop radio by making country music “countrypolitan.” The era’s elaborate productions — the sound of performers like Glen Campbell, Harry Nilsson, Charlie Rich and the Mamas and the Papas — enfolded pristinely recorded acoustic guitars and keyboards, understated drums and mere whispers of country-style pedal steel guitar into lofty orchestral arrangements. At the time, it could turn corny and overwrought. In 2019, however, the style is a direct repudiation of current pop: smooth and liquid rather than rhythmic and sparse, and relying largely on acoustic, physical instruments.
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