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Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars

Bruce Springsteen is a philosopher masquerading as a rock star. This was evident from the beginning, when we saw that the cars in his lyrics were more than mere modes of transport; they were a metaphor for freedom and the possibilities promised by the American dream. Then, as his live performances gained legendary stature, Springsteen’s concerts morphed from chock-a-block music marathons to events featuring homily-like interludes wherein Springsteen delivered the gospel according to Bruce. 

The Boss has continued to search for new ways to integrate philosophy with music. In 2018, he hit upon the idea of a one-man Broadway show. Called Springsteen on Broadway, the sold out, oft-extended run was an autobiographical monologue punctuated by solo acoustic song performances. The format allowed Springsteen’s thoughtful reflections and familiar music to reinforce and deepen each other. (If you’re a Springsteen fan and didn’t see the show, you can find an excellent video of it on Netflix.) Springsteen on Broadway proved, if there was any doubt, that Springsteen is at least as compelling a storyteller in prose as he is with lyrics. 

For Western Stars, the artist again sought a new way to combine spoken observations with music. This time he dove into an entirely new medium, co-producing a film. Making a movie allowed Springsteen to break free of the optical strictures inherent in a concert hall or Broadway stage.

As he has with previous solo albums, Springsteen created a character—in this case an unnamed rhinestone cowboy, if you will, who has far more life behind him than ahead. The character’s milieu is the great American West, which here serves as another metaphor for freedom. Yet the character’s smallness compared to his surroundings emphasizes the other half of Springsteen’s theme: freedom inevitably comes face to face with the love we all need, and that love only comes through stability and family.

The soundtrack tells the character’s story in more detail, and Springsteen matches the movie’s visual grandeur with large-scale arrangements that feature a 30-piece orchestra. The surprising thing is that the visuals and the songs never accompany each other. Instead, the visuals feature and are narrated by Springsteen, who relates each song’s lyrics to both the character and his own life. These thoughts serve as both philosophical musings and introductions to a live performance of the song. 

Of the film’s three elements—visuals, narration and performance—the last two are by far the most compelling. This is Springsteen’s first foray into film, and in truth the images don’t add a lot. Nonetheless, the film is well worth seeing because it’s the only way to hear Bruce’s graceful and eloquent observations on confronting life’s contradictions and temporal limits.  

 

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. 

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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