CD: Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars The Boss shows his smooth side

From The Arts Desk

Nothing can quite prepare you for Western Stars, Springsteen's homage to classic artists like Glen Cambell and Burt Bacharach. It's not just the presence of horns and strings. What really leaves you open-mouthed is the voice. Gone is the trademark sand and grit, and in its place, we get an effortless-yet-weary, country croon.

It's all a far cry from the Boss's work with the E Street Band. The musical arrangements hark straight back to a golden age of orchestral pop and songs like "Wichita Lineman". Melodies swoop, and strings rise. There are sad muted horns and tinkles of electric piano. When the strings recede, underneath are country guitars.

The whole album is soaked in the early Seventies. This is a world of long distances, loneliness and, above all, nostalgia. The songs are populated with broken-hearted drifters and worn-out has-beens. Like the faded actor in the title track reduced to boring strangers in motel bars. Or the physically broken stuntman on "Drive Fast" who reminds you of Springsteen's "The Wrestler" from 2008.

The difference, of course, is in the delivery. Gliding strings make the stuntman's tale feel yearning rather than desolate. Other songs are simply sumptuous. The soaring vocals on "There Goes My Miracle" sound almost like the Walker Brothers. And yet, it still feels deceptively weighty. By locating the songs in a place just out of reach, Springsteen taps into universal feelings of ageing and longing. The album's climax, "Chasin' Wild Horses" is as powerful as anything he's ever done.

What Springsteen purists will make of Western Stars remains to be seen. Some may consider it a curiosity. Others, no doubt, will be convinced that the Boss should spend his time alternating between albums that sound a bit like Nebraska and Born to Run. But even rock stars need to mellow out. Springsteen is now almost 70. Surely, projects like this and his recent Broadway residency are exactly the sort of thing he should be doing.

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