When Bruce Springsteen released Western Stars in June, the new studio album at first registered with fans as an outlier.
This was country Bruce, Springsteen with strings, the Jersey rocker on an uncharacteristic 1970s Southern California jag, throwing his saddle in the back of his El Camino and heading into the desert.
Springsteen described Western Stars as “a jewel box of a record.” It came across as a polished, self-contained entity, a solo album with sweeping orchestrations that made the musician, then on the eve of his 70th birthday, sound not quite like ever before.
Once it became clear that Springsteen was not going to tour behind it, Western Stars seemed ready to recede in the rearview mirror. Put it out there. Move on.
Indeed, the Boss has since promised to give his faithful what they’re clamoring for: one more — maybe last? — hurrah with the E Street Band, with whom he’s been playing cathartic marathon shows for decades.
Yes, an E Street album and tour are being plotted for 2020 — no details yet — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Can everybody just hold their horses?
Springsteen isn’t done with Western Stars. He’s now followed up the album with its movie companion, a feature film that he wrote and stars in and that also marks his directorial debut. (He shared duties with Thom Zimny, who most recently helmed the Netflix version of Springsteen on Broadway.)
Western Stars, the movie, which opened Friday, aims to be more than a concert film. It’s built around a performance of the album by Springsteen accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra, plus a band whose members include wife Patti Scialfa.
The footage was shot in a 140-year-old barn with a cathedral ceiling on Springsteen’s property in Colts Neck, N.J.
The film’s live-performance portion does a fine job of bringing the Western Stars songs to life. “Hitch Hikin’ ” puts the album’s protagonist on a narrative arc, alone on the highway in a musical setting mapped out with acoustic guitar, banjo, and swooning strings.
It carries through to the title cut about a faded Western movie actor who watches a coyote gnaw on a Chihuahua from his veranda and whose latest role is in a Viagra commercial.
When it comes to selling a song, Springsteen has few peers. And he wasn’t about to let this good batch — his best work since 2007’s Magic — get away without a proper showcase.
But what’s distinctive about Western Stars is what takes place between songs. There, the movie becomes a big-screen-worthy cinematic experience, with Springsteen dispensing hard-earned wisdom about what the songs mean to him while the camera luxuriates in spectacular vistas of the American West.
It begins with picturesque shots of horses streaming across the California desert. Our first glimpse of Springsteen is his weathered hand, resting on a steering wheel, a turquoise bracelet on his wrist.
The Western Stars movie — which loosens up at the end with a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” — makes the case that Springsteen’s new songs tie in with themes that have animated his best work all along. It presents the album as a continuation of the autobiographical project the songwriter obsessed over in both his 2016 Born To Run biography and the Broadway show that grew out of it.
At the start of the film, Springsteen talks about “the struggle between individual freedom and communal life” as “the two sides that always and forever rub up against each other” in American life.
He puts himself in that equation with narration that digs into his struggles with depression, building a family life, and learning how to let go of his solitary male rage.
It’s not all super heavy: There are charming home movie clips that include baby Bruce riding boardwalk carousel horseys, and camcorder footage of a smoochy honeymoon getaway with Scialfa.
The interstitial sections do begin to feel episodic, and as the musical performances build momentum — the soaring “There’s Goes My Miracle” is particularly effective — the between-song bits risk undercutting it.
Though the movie is beautifully shot, it needs be said that Springsteen looks silly in a cowboy hat, like he’s auditioning for a Marlboro Man commercial. Thankfully, those shots are kept to a minimum. He’s more comfortable holding a Stetson in his hand.
But the song-explaining bits staged in an old pickup truck or out under an expansive Mojave sky are essential not only in opening up the movie, but in demonstrating that Western Stars isn’t really such an outlier in the Springsteen ouevre, after all.
It’s true that Springsteen is from New Jersey, and his music is rooted there. He’s from New Jersey the way saltwater taffy and Tony Soprano are. The creation can never be entirely separated from the place it was born.
But from the beginning, Springsteen’s aspirations to tell a larger American story pointed him west. In “Rosalita,” way back in 1973, he found “a pretty little place in Southern California, down San Diego way.” Seeking the “Promised Land” in 1978 drove him to “a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert.”
Springsteen went through an entire California period, on his 1991 albums Human Touch and Lucky Town, that lacked a sense of place. Since then, horsey songs have been giddy-upping on his folkie solo albums, from “Sinaloa Cowboys” on 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad (shaped by John Ford’s version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, speaking of Springsteen the cineast) to “Black Cowboys” on 2005’s Devils & Dust.
Western Stars, the album, finds a satisfying Left Coast musical home. It unabashedly draws on the Campbell-Jimmy Webb-Danny O’Keefe axis that produced 1970s hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” — particularly on the seductive “Hello Sunshine,” which yields a key line: “You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.”
Western Stars isn’t too juicy with personal detail, but Springsteen does let out that he and Scialfa “had to sneak around” as their romance bloomed and his first marriage to Julianne Phillips was ending. His two duets with Scialfa are highlights, particularly “Stones,” in which they stand nose to nose and sing about “the lies you told me,” in a manner reminiscent of Tunnel of Love’s “Brilliant Disguise.”
Some of Springsteen’s elucidations risk freighting his songs with more meaning than they can hold. “Tucson Train” is a love song about “how a man can change” that’s easy to imagine the E Street Band revving up on tour. It’s a little jarring when he uses its intro in the film to own up that “for a long time, if I loved you or felt a deep attachment to you, I would hurt you if I could.”