The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow, and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.
Ever since the release of 2014’s High Hopes — the least consequential and all-around worst studio album of his 46-year career — Bruce Springsteen has spent a lot of time publicly examining what it means to be Bruce Springsteen. He released a best-selling memoir, Born To Run, that delved deep into the relationship with his father — long one of the touchstones of his songwriting — and his private battles with mental illness. Then he mounted the wildly successful Springsteen On Broadway stage show, in which he likened to construction and performance of his “Boss” persona to a magic trick that conceals far more than it reveals.
That’s a lot of palate-cleansing in the past five years. Luckily during this period, Springsteen also made his 19th studio album, Western Stars, apparently shelving it for a period until it felt right to release. A self-described “return” to solo recordings “featuring character-driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” Western Stars seems ripe for comparison to Springsteen’s other solo albums, 1982’s Nebraska and 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad. But in reality, it is quite unlike anything else he’s ever done. If his recent meta-musings cleared some space between Springsteen the man and Springsteen the icon, Western Stars feels like the start of a new creative path unburdened by his own rich history.
Springsteen has signaled ahead of time the influence of singer-songwriter records that came out of California in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That era’s impact on Western Stars is obvious and pervasive — the album evokes the strings-laden pop-country of Glen Campbell’s Jimmy Webb-penned hits of the time, as well as the Dylanesque, post-Nashville Skyline cosmic Americana of artists like Fred Neil, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and early Townes Van Zandt. Even Neil Diamond — whose florid, bombastic folk-pop peaked in popularity around the time that Bruce put out his first solo album in 1973 — emerges as a reference point. Rather than lean into the trademark gravel of his stadium-rock prime, Springsteen sings throughout Western Stars in a full-throated croon supported by strings, mournful pianos, pedal-steel guitars, and waves upon waves of introspective melancholy.
It feels, in a way, like a portal to an alternate career arc for Springsteen. What if he had started out in the ’70s as a more straight-forward singer-songwriter, rather than the hybrid of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Phil Spector that defined his early sound? Western Stars suggests that his gifts as a singer and writer of pop melodies — both of which are weirdly underrated — would have served him well.
The songs themselves are still recognizably Springsteen. The title track is an instant classic of first-person narrative songwriting, sung from the perspective of an aging B-movie actor who sees his life slowly slipping away and can’t decide how he feels about it. Springsteen tells the story in a soft voice, like he’s still addressing an intimate theater audience. But his ability to draw the listener in with lyrical details that play like a movie in your head remains unparalleled: