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“Standing before you,” said Bruce Springsteen during his 2018 show Springsteen on Broadway, “is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.”
The Boss was referring to his penchant for writing songs from a blue-collar point of view despite his never having worked a day job, a penchant that he referred to as his “magic trick.” And he played the confession for laughs.
Still, it forced the audience, if only momentarily, to focus on his man-behind-the-curtain act as an act, to consider it, in effect, in the same way that fans of body slams and drop kicks have had to consider professional wrestling ever since its performers came clean.
For someone like Springsteen, the popularity of whose work has always owed a lot to its perception as “authentic,” such an admission courts disaster.
Western Stars (Columbia), Springsteen’s new solo album, is not a disaster. It does, however, rank among his lesser achievements. And the ever-widening, now-owned-up-to distance between Springsteen’s real life and the lives of his personae is largely to blame.
The Springsteen of Western Stars haunts abandoned motels (“Moonlight Motel”), walks empty streets (“Hello Sunshine”), gets done wrong and abandoned by his woman (“There Goes My Miracle,” “Stones”), drifts from town to town (“The Wayfarer”) and bar to bar (“Sundown”), hitchhikes (“Hitch Hikin’”), and fails at peddling his songs (“Somewhere North of Nashville”).
He also plays a broken-down stunt driver (“Drive Fast”), a regret-laden crane operator (“Tucson Train”), and a has-been B-movie actor (the title cut).
He won’t be winning any Academy Awards.
With his T-shirts, leather jackets, jeans, and tousled hair, the 20-something Springsteen of the 1970s came off pretty convincing as the desperate protagonist of the torrid mini-dramas “Rosalita” and “Born to Run.” But bringing off the beautiful-loser wastrel bit as a graying, happily married, soon-to-be-septuagenarian megastar with homes in New Jersey, Florida, and California (and an Obama-bestowed Presidential Medal of Freedom in one of those) is a taller order.
So is making music that rocks or rolls when there’s no E Street Band involved. What the music does instead is lope along at a midtempo pace, leaving the heavy emotional lifting to woodwinds, brass, and strings.
There’s also the matter of Springsteen’s singing. He has forgone his usual approach, one might call it “vocal emoting,” in favor of actual singing—of using, in other words, the voice that he might employ while auditioning for the baritone section in a community choir.
That he’s no Sinatra comes as no surprise. That he’s three years older than Sinatra was when Sinatra recorded She Shot Me Down, his last nongimmicky album, in 1981 should give one a pretty good idea of how much of a Sinatra he isn’t.
Yet, its many nondescript qualities notwithstanding, Western Stars still managed to debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 100. What beat it out for the top spot? Madonna’s Madame X (Interscope).
As with most Madonna albums, Madame X feels too willful. Multiple era-hopping styles, rampant virtue-signaling (and sometimes piety-signaling), chronic Auto-Tune, enough Spanish for a Democratic presidential debate—they all combine to create the impression of a woman who’ll do whatever she thinks it will take to maintain her status as the world’s preeminent female pop star.
It’s an approach that may have finally run its course. Madame X’s chart position just one week after its debut? Seventy-seven.