Another reason to seek out the film is to take in the magnificent setting of the live performance. For this occasion, Springsteen turned his own huge, 100-year-old barn into a majestically lit concert venue. Like the songs themselves, the space is both lofty and intimate. It’s almost a character unto itself, and it gives the material added resonance. The combination of a large orchestral backing, the subtle country-music inflections, and the character-driven lyrics make this song collection unlike anything Bruce has ever before recorded.
Of course, you can hear this music without seeing the film, because it’s on the album. Actually, though, it’s on two albums. The first is titled Western Stars while the second is Western Stars: Music from the Film. While they feature the same songs, the two releases are actually entirely different recording projects.
Listening to them together, you might guess that Springsteen first recorded the live barn concert, then went into the studio to clean up the mix and improve the sonics. That’s because the studio version is much cleaner, with far more open sonics that allow every instrumental detail to shine.
Yet the truth is that Springsteen recorded the studio album months before he filmed the live concert. During that time, he fine-tuned the orchestration as well as the rest of the accompaniment. To my ears the live release offers the superior performances. Not only are the arrangement tweaks uniformly worthwhile, singing before a small audience inspired Springsteen to deliver even more impassioned performances than you’ll find on the studio album.
So which album to buy? The studio release has better sound, and it’s easier to hear what’s going on with the accompaniment. Indeed, this is a demo-quality recording. But the film soundtrack has more engaging performances and more fully realized arrangements. If it’s a choice between better sound or better music, I’ll always go for the music. Besides, the soundtrack’s sonics aren’t bad, they’re just not up to that of the studio version.
If you’re still undecided and need a tie-breaker, consider the following. Unlike the studio album, the film soundtrack includes Springsteen’s joyous rendition of the Glen Campbell/Larry Weiss classic, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It’s the most apt closing song imaginable, and I personally wouldn’t be without it.