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Making it up

The Boss fails to convince in his Western Stars personae

“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.

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Notable new releases

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

Billie Eilish

As a lyricist, this virally popular teen has nothing to teach anyone who doesn’t already know that fear of global warming has largely replaced the fear of God among today’s youth (“All the Good Girls Go to Hell”) or that spurned girls sometimes seek succor in twisted fantasies (“Wish You Were Gay”). But as a sound sculptress, she has hit upon a way forward. Whether devised by her or her producer-brother Finneas O’Connell, almost none of the electronic filters through which she coos sound anything like Auto-Tune.

Father of The Bride

Vampire Weekend

“Flower Moon” could slip unnoticed onto Paul Simon’s Graceland, so fluently do its polyrhythms and lilting melodies buoy Ezra Koenig’s boyishly downy vocals toward significance. In general, though, Koenig has so subsumed his wide-ranging pop influences that few if any of them draw undue attention to themselves. The result is a lengthy and uncommonly lively long-player that peaks more often than it flags and whose philosophical parameters do not exclude cultural Christianity as a fact of life. Can you say Album of the Year?

Where the Action Is (Deluxe Edition) 

The Waterboys

Unlike the alternate versions in most “deluxe editions,” the 11 on this album’s second disc could shift units on their own. They’re certainly as imaginative production-wise as their Disc 1 counterparts, shading from pedal-to-the-metal soul (the title track) to mystical folk (the Kenneth Grahame recitation) and back again. It’s those counterparts, however, that keep Mike Scott’s lyrics front and center. And whether he’s paying tribute to Mick Jones or planting his feet “on a rock that wasn’t made by hands,” Scott clearly means business.

The Hurting Kind

John Paul White

Blame “The Good Old Days,” a challenge to bitter clingers everywhere, on the increasingly frequent tendency of musicians to wear their “wokeness” on their sleeve lest they be suspected of populist dog whistling. Then savor the other nine songs: for their insights into love’s little (and not so little) ups and downs, their timeless country-folk melodies, and their compatibility with White’s one-for-the-ages voice and its unassuming approximations of Orbisonian grandeur. What’s so good about the good old days, John Paul? Music like yours.

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Bolden and beyond

Albums by Wynton and Branford Marsalis evocatively trace the evolution of jazz

Although they were conceived with entirely different goals, the latest albums by Wynton Marsalis and the quartet led by his younger brother Branford illuminate two parts of the same quintessentially American narrative: jazz’s disreputable birth in the sweltering fleshpots of late-19th-century New Orleans and its maturation into a high art form befitting the toniest venues of the present. 

Wynton’s album is Bolden (Blue Engine), the soundtrack to Dan Pritzker’s recently released biopic of the same name. Loosely structured and semi-fictitious, the film attempts to dramatize the scantily documented life of “King” Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), a legendary New Orleans cornetist often referred to as the father of jazz. 

The extent to which the film succeeds owes a lot to the elder Marsalis, who leads both the seven-man combo that re-creates Bolden’s performances and the 10-man orchestra that re-creates those of Louis Armstrong (whom the film depicts, not unreasonably, as picking up where Bolden left off after Bolden cracked beneath the weight of his incessant debauchery and was committed to the insane asylum where he died 24 years later).  

On the Bolden cuts—those that Bolden is believed to have played as well as those that Marsalis composed in his vein—Marsalis plays cornet while his band whips up exuberant simulacra of the brassy, and occasionally bawdy, sounds that even now characterize a New Orleans night, and sometimes day, on the town. 

And although there’s sophistication in the interplay of trombone, saxophones, and rhythm section, it’s the spirit of revelry, which always seems a hair’s breadth away from spiraling out of control, that commands attention. Unless the wax cylinder that Bolden supposedly recorded finally surfaces, these performances are the next best thing to being there. 

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