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‘Stars’ new path for Springsteen

‘Western Stars’ – Bruce Springsteen

Avicii goes out on top

Bruce Springsteen, “Western Stars” (Columbia)

Bruce Springsteen’s new studio release breaks fresh ground for the veteran rocker, who turns his back not only on the blistering sound of the E Street Band but also abandons the haunting acoustic moods pioneered on “Nebraska” and fine-tuned on later solo efforts.

After the soul-searching, confessional tone of his best-selling autobiography and sold-out Broadway show, Springsteen’s “Western Stars” relies on an unfamiliar orchestral approach that somewhat masks the singer and is devoid of driving beats, sax solos and rock ‘n’ roll tropes.

Instead, he draws on the rich tradition of California-styled, pre-Beatles pop. There are hints of Roy Orbison’s soaring vocals and Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies, but the lyrics are pure Springsteen. Beneath the glossy sheen are the taut narratives, introspection and ambiguous moments familiar to longtime listeners. His storytelling skills are as strong as ever, just presented in a different way.

He’s paying homage to an era when the single reigned, and radio airtime went a long way to determining an artist’s success or oblivion, but Springsteen is not looking for No.1 hits with easy hooks. “Western Stars” is understated, without over-the-top orchestration or hyperbole. Each song stands alone as a self-contained story; taken as a whole it’s a panorama of loneliness and heartbreak. The protagonists are mostly men, and mostly beaten down, but there are occasional whiffs of freedom, usually tied to the joys of the open road, that most enduring of American myths.

It is no accident that the album opens with “Hitch Hikin’” and this straightforward image of a loner in perpetual motion: “Thumb stuck out as I go/I’m just travelin’ up the road/Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind.” It’s a recurring image dating back to the days of Woody Guthrie.

There are other fully-formed characters from Springsteen’s imagination: the failed country music songwriter, his lyrics rejected at every turn, the busted up B-movie stuntman held together by rods and pins, even a rundown hotel with an empty swimming pool with dandelions pushing up through the cracked concrete takes on a life of its own as a character in “Moonlight Motel”.

But it’s not all heartbreak. There are small celebrations, too, notably in “Sleepy Joe’s Café”, where working men and women can find solace on the dance floor when weekend comes. It’s a dreamy place where Monday morning is far, far away, and Springsteen has placed it in the context of the postwar economic boom that powered America for decades: “Joe came home in ‘45 and took out a G.I. loan/On a sleepy little spot an Army cook could call his own/He married May, the highway come in and they woke up to find they were sitting on top of a pretty little gold mine.”

It’s a nostalgic vision, yes, but those roadhouses still exist. You just have to drive a bit.

The first words from the first single of Avicii’s latest album are a gut-punch: “Can you hear me? SOS”. Not long after he wrote the lyric, the Swedish DJ-producer was dead. The hardest part is that his posthumous album, “TIM,” is a farewell wave from an artist who clearly was at the top of his game.

Avicii, whose real name was Tim Bergling, died in Oman last year at 28. He left behind a dozen excellent songs that show he had grown into a pop music powerhouse, attracting the likes of Imagine Dragons and Coldplay’s Chris Martin as guests.

Days before leaving for Oman, he sent new music to his team, outlining what songs he wanted on his forthcoming album. No two are the same.

He explores Indian sounds (“Tough Love”), hip-hop and glam (“Excuse Me Mr Sir”), does a little Troye Sivan-like frank intimacy (“Freak”), uses blissed-out harmonies (“Peace of Mind”) and tropical vibes (“Bad Reputation”). Joe Janiak offers vocals on two tracks, Bonn on another pair and the Swedish production team Vargas & Lagola collaborated on three songs.

Avicii adds ominous strings with Imagine Dragons to create the near-operatic “Heart Upon My Sleeve”. His collaboration with Martin on “Heaven” may remind you of the Coldplay man’s work on the smash hit “Something Like This” with The Chainsmokers. It may even be better.

“TIM” is the culmination of Avicii’s song-based flair that incorporates elements outside EDM. Unlike other DJs, his songs aren’t rushed. He lets them breathe. The predictable tricks his rivals use are absent here. The songs feel organic, not processed.

Lyrically, it’s tempting to find darkness and, sure, it’s there. “Can I get a little peace?” go the lyrics on one song. “Down upon my knees,” go another. “I still feel broken.”

But “TIM” is actually optimistic in tone. “All the breath in your lungs/Is stronger than the tears in your eyes,” the lyrics go on “Hold the Line”. And despite fighting with a lover in “Tough Love”, it concludes: “There’s no place I’d rather be than in your arms.”

Even “SOS” – which reunites Avicii with Aloe Blacc, who sang on Avicii’s biggest hit, 2013’s “Wake Me Up” – has hope: “I can feel your love pulling me up from the underground.” There is the power of love all over “TIM”. Let that be his legacy.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: Beat games, the company behind the breakthrough virtual reality (VR) rhythm game “Beat Saber”, has struck its first major-label partnership: Beat Games released an Imagine Dragons music pack Monday, allowing “Beat Saber” players to slice and dice their way through 10 songs from the band’s four studio albums.

“Beat Saber”, which is a bit like a mix of “Guitar Hero” and “Fruit Ninja”, has been a success story since the first release of an “early access” version around a year ago. In March, it became the first VR game to surpass sales of 1 million copies. “Beat Saber” has also been prominently featured in billboards and commercials for Facebook’s new Oculus Quest VR headset.

But until now, “Beat Saber” primarily featured lesser-known EDM artists. Imagine Dragons, who are releasing on KIDinaKORNER / Interscope Records, are the first major-label band to get their own music pack.

By Gregory Katz

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