Early on in “Western Stars,” a concert-concept film based on Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name, the rock icon says, “It’s my 19th album and I’m still writing about cars.” It’s a funny comment but loaded with meaning. Metaphorically the cars in Springsteen’s songs are always moving forward and at just shy of age seventy Springsteen does the same, showcasing music here unlike anything he’s ever made. Looking in the rearview mirror to influences like the country-pop music of Jimmy Webb while keeping the pedal to the metal, he charts new territory.
Shot in the hayloft of a 140-year-old barn on Springsteen’s Colts Neck, New Jersey property (“A place filled with the best kind of ghosts and spirits,” he says) in front of a small, private audience, the concert features a 30-piece orchestra and band, including wife Patti Scialfa. Taking center stage under the cathedral ceiling he unfurls the album’s 13 songs of melancholy (plus a bonus track at the end). Told from the point of view of a faded cowboy b-movie star, the tunes evocatively tell stories of blue-collar Hollywood stuntmen, loss and bravado (“Once I was shot by John Wayne,” he sings in the title track. “Yeah, it was towards the end. That one scene brought me a thousand drinks. Set me up and I’ll tell it for you, friend.”) The performances are energetic but solemn; this isn’t the fist-pumping “Dancing in the Dark” Boss but an introspective artist sharing soulful, personal moments through the narrative of his music.
Instead of the usual concert film interviews—”It was an honour to work with Bruce… etc.”—Springsteen and longtime collaborator Thom Zimny link the songs with arty short films that illuminate Springsteen’s headspace as he wrote the songs. Shot in the Joshua Tree desert, these moody visual pastiches of Bruce in American legend mode, in cowboy hats and boots, are personal reflections that deepen the understanding of the music. “We’re always trying to find somebody whose broken pieces fit with our broken pieces,” he says, “and something whole emerges.” His words reflect on the art but his comfortable on-stage interaction with Scialfa, his wife and musical partner of thirty years, also intimates he found that with her. It’s a cinematic riff on his “Springsteen on Broadway” show but instead of anecdotes here he gives a look at his inner life, laying bare some profound personal introspection.
“Western Stars” is an intimate performance with great music, lyrical soul-searching (“The older you get,” he says, “the heavier that baggage becomes that you haven’t sorted through.”) and a restless spirit that suggests Springsteen is mining his baggage to create vital, beautiful new art.