Bruce Springsteen, rock star and troubadour, is now old enough to reflect on his life and ponder both the good times and the bad. He is still recording in his seventies, and Western Stars was an album he decided not to tour, making this film instead where he could interweave the songs on it with his observations on America and his place in it, as well as those he has loved and lost - and hung onto - along the way. He sets up a band and small orchestra in a hundred-year-old barn on his property, invites a small audience, and begins to play his way through his set, all resonant of his long career and everything it and those around him who have meant anything in all the years...
As you might have guessed, this was essentially a concert movie, directed by The Boss and his long-time associate Thom Zimny who had helmed a number of his videos from the latter half of Springsteen's output, making this comparatively epic as far as that went. It was not, however, representative of one of the singer's concerts that you might go along to as a fan, since it was not four hours long, in fact it was a lean eighty-three minutes - didn't even breach the hour-and-a-half mark, probably because it was, further than a live recording, pretty much the Western Stars album with accompanying visuals. That barn setting was well-chosen, and particularly atmospheric.
Not that we stayed in the barn for the duration, for there was more to this as Springsteen placed segments between the singing which captured the Americana feel he was aiming for. Shots of horses running free across a majestic plain, the highways stretching through the deserts, and the ordinary folks having a nice evening at their local bar, were evocative enough, though separated from the lyrics they were more like half there as the quotes from the man himself to accompany them sounded closer to a relaxation tape than the insightful sharing that you imagine was intended. Nevertheless, it all wove a tapestry, and it would be the songs the fans wanted to hear anyway.
What was nice about this was that when you heard Springsteen's words as part of those songs, they made a lot more sense, a point to note if you ever divorced lyrics from their tunes and tried to work out what made them tick. A lot of the time in a good ditty what mattered was how they were sung and how they came across with the rest of the instrumentation (unless you were singing acapella, one supposes), which was amply demonstrated whenever the music started up proper here. Even a Bruce agnostic may find themselves warming to the poignant, wistful country vibe he was conjuring up with this, and the lush strings, while perhaps an easy way to add class to your recordings, certainly complemented rather than swamped the singing, his voice retaining that raw, earthy quality of the past.
On the other hand, if you were ever surprised and disappointed to learn Born in the U.S.A. was not a patriotic song, then maybe Bruce was not for you, and this more mellow incarnation would not win you over either. Despite wearing his blue-collar credentials on his sleeve for all his life, and supporting the working man and woman for that time as well, that support was not always reciprocated, and cynics would not appreciate this cowboy version of Springsteen. Yet he did not seem pandering at all, he conveyed complete sincerity and his musings did hit the mark more often than not, especially if you took the time to appreciate what he was saying about what he had learned on the subject of love - this was not the political Springsteen, he was dialling that down for an appeal to the everyman you suspect he always wanted to be. Maybe these would not be his most memorable songs, but crucially hearing them altogether they did sound like a genuine album, rather than disparate recordings strung together as many this century did.