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Bruce Springsteen’s cinematic new album heads into cowboy country

Bruce Springsteen. Photo/Supplied

The stars in the title of Bruce Springsteen’s 19th album aren’t just those shining down on the hardscrabble American lives that have long inhabited his songs. They could just as easily be forgotten names on the Hollywood walk of fame. Guys who played cowboys in movies stoking the myth of the Old West, then rode off into the sunset.

This simple double entendre underpins a departure for The Boss. After the up-close-and-personal Springsteen on Broadway shows and the swaggering E Street Band reunions, Western Stars, a wide-screen, highly orchestrated album, revels in nostalgia.

In its best moments – the sweeping strings of Chasin’ Wild Horses and the Roy Orbison-esque crooned chorus on There Goes My Miracle – the album is reminiscent of a Harry Nilsson soundtrack, but oddities such as the big-band zydeco of Sleepy Joe’s Café and the sub-two-minute folksy simplicity of Somewhere North of Nashville show he’s still willing to experiment.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Given Springsteen’s autobiographical output in recent years, it’s tempting to look for mea culpas and inner emotional turmoil in such songs as Drive Fast (The Stuntman), but the beauty of his songwriting on Western Stars is that he remains a ghost behind a series of 13 intricate portraits.

As he sings in The Wayfarer, “It’s the same sad story going round and round”, which could sum up his career, not just this album, but the emphasis is on storytelling, not sadness. By dressing his narratives in such gloriously dated, Tinseltown schmaltz, he elevates the small, sad stories into big-screen blockbusters.

WESTERN STARS, Bruce Springsteen (Sony)

★★★★

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.