Posts Tagged ‘Chasing Wild Horses’

The best music reflects the audience as much as the artist; we hear and feel our own life’s highs and lows in the lyrics and melodies. Hardship and happiness are singular yet communal experiences, in other words. Everyone encounters each along the way, though the where and when may differ. Life unfolds like a maze, after all. Though no two journeys are the same, at some point everyone treads down a rocky path that turns into a dead end – just as everyone eventually, at least for a time, finds their way. We do it again and again, over and over, until, at last, the maze comes to an end.

Years end, too. 

Which leads to this: On New Year’s Eve of 1978, the year when the music bug bit me, I scrawled “Wings – London Town” on a piece of looseleaf paper I titled “Best Album of the Year” (or words to that effect) that I then slipped into one of the drawers of my desk – the same desk, in fact, that I’m writing on now. With every passing year, another album or albums were added to said paper. In time, I transferred the burgeoning list to typing paper, then entered it into our first computer, then saved it to a floppy disc and, in the late 2000s, moved it lock, stock and barrel to an external hard drive. I now have it stored in the Cloud. 

(Heirs beware: There’s a lot of digital junk in my digital drawers.) 

The selection process, then and now, remains the same. As I explained in a Facebook post way back in 2010 that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” (I’d amend that ever-so-slightly now. The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.)

Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars bowled me over upon its June release. It marries an art form I adore – the “adult pop” sound of the 1960s – with Bruce’s well-honed songcraft, which this time out features a slew of recognizable characters finding their way through life. As I wrote in my review, it “spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ in other words.)”

It’s such a tremendous album that, honestly, I’ve assumed it would be my Album of the Year since I first heard it.

But it’s not. It’s my No. 2.

No, my top album of the year is Allison Moorer’s Blood, the companion album to her poetic (and highly recommended) memoir of the same name. As I concluded in my review, it’s “a soulful treatise that resonates like few albums I’ve heard this year, let alone this decade. It’s a personal journey through pain and darkness that shares universal truths about life, love and forgiveness. Don’t miss experiencing it.”

Not all of the year was given over to darkness, however. The 3×4 compilation, which found the Bangles, Three O’Clock, Rain Parade and Dream Syndicate tripping back to the mid-‘80s and the Paisley Underground via vibrant renditions of each other’s songs, was and is pure joy set to vinyl. As I said in my review, “the music was utterly of its time – and, I’d argue, timeless.” It’s my No. 3.

Coming in at No. 4: Kelsey Waldon’s White Noise/White Lines. To cop a few lines from my review, it “mines the earthen strains of country music that mainstream Nashville, too often these days, ignores. It’s not the country-pop played on the radio, but the country-punk once played in the honky-tonks. It’s raw and ragged, real. Black soot courses through its veins.”

And, finally, my fifth favorite album of the year is Leslie Stevens’ Sinner, a set that both conjures and transcends the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons. To borrow from my review, “[i]t’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.”

(There were many other albums that caught my ear throughout the year and, I’m sure, in the weeks and months to come I’ll regret not singling a few out here. Feel free to peruse my First Impressions of them.)

The romanticism of youth doesn’t necessarily give way to regret and self-recrimination as we age, but Bruce Springsteen depicts life’s arc as just that in his CinemaScope-lensed Western Stars, which is essentially a John Ford western set in the modern age. The sonic anthology opens with a drifter on the side of a road, his thumb out in hopes of a flagging down a ride. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind,” he sings. “Got what I can carry and my song/I’m a rolling stone just rolling on.”

As “Hitch Hikin’” evolves, the album’s tone is set: Symphonic flourishes accent the songs, the bulk of which simmer with a fraught tension. “The Wayfarer,” the second cut, conjures Dion’s “The Wanderer,” the classic oldie that’s deeper and darker than, at first listen, it seems; and “Tucson Train” continues down the same thematic stretch of tracks; one has no doubt that the narrator waiting for his baby on the five-fifteen will, at some point, be hitting the road alone again. He’s compelled to move on, to escape.

The music often echoes the mainstream pop of the 1960s – everything from the cosmopolitan country sounds of Glen Campbell (think “Wichita Lineman”) to Burt Bacharach’s collaborations with Dionne Warwick, where strings and orchestral flourishes welled and jelled with the emotive melodies. Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” is another point of reference, as is “Ballad of Easy Rider” by the Byrds. (For more on the latter, see Ann Powers’ excellent review over at NPR.org.) As I wrote in this piece, I hear it as Springsteen framing adult stories via the adult sounds he heard as a youth and young man.

As the Bacharach mention infers, Western Stars is not a “country” album, per se, though it is western-themed. From the New Jersey turnpike to the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” open expanses have often played central roles in Bruce’s songs. Early on, the wide berths of land usually equated with freedom; now, not so much. 

In addition to the hitch hiker, characters include an aging actor, a stuntman, a ranch hand, a failed songwriter, and other men damaged by life. They’re invisible to many, and a source of derision to others – but they ache all the same. (In Time magazine, Andrew R. Chow posits that these folks are veterans still coming to terms with their service, but I think Springsteen cast his net wider than that.)

In Springsteen’s worldview, work is an escape, too (as his unwillingness to leave a concert stage shows). In “Tucson Train,” the narrator’s a crane operator: “Hard work’ll clear your mind and body/the hard sun will burn out the pain.” Likewise, in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the narrator admits that, “I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired/way too tired to think.”

The hitch hiker surfaces again in “Somewhere North of Nashville,” a potent and powerful song despite its brevity: “I lie awake in the middle of the night/makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”

The album concludes with “Moonlight Motel,” a song that echoes the haunting “My Father’s House” from Nebraska. Instead of returning to his childhood home, however, this time he finds himself revisiting a motel where he and a lover once enjoyed carefree afternoons. Instead of mourning the un-atoned sins of his youth, he mourns a love that tumbled away like leaves in the breeze.  

In short, Western Stars spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (“There but for the grace of God go I,” in other words.)

The track list: