Album of the Week: Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars (Columbia Records) ***

ARTISTS, if they’re lucky, get ten years of creative excellence and commercial reward.

The Beatles smashed it in just eight years. U2’s last great album was Achtung Baby, 11 years after their debut. Abba departed the international stage just as their decade was up. Led Zeppelin made it to 12 years. Dylan’s best work was across a ten-year period.

Bruce Springsteen’s most inspired decade began in 1973 and ran to the mid-1980s. His last excellent effort was Tunnel Of Love, released in 1987. The Boss set the bar so high in the early years (the first three albums, in particular, are a magical mix of folk, rock, jazz and soul), that it’s been very, very hard for him, try as he might, to recapture the glory days.

Western Stars, his latest release, has been lauded by critics, but not everybody is convinced. Express uncertainty to other Boss fanatics, and you might be met with incredulity. "It’s a masterpiece," goes the refrain. I beg to differ.

It’s not that Western Stars is a bad album; it’s a sober set of mid-tempo songs that reflect with wisdom on loss, ageing and uncertainty. But the older Bruce struggles to recapture the energy and spirit of youth.

Once again jettisoning the E Street Band (and long-time producer Toby Scott) in favour of Ron Aniello and a small army of more than 50 musicians, the singer has come up with sweeping orchestral arrangements that work well, but lack the soaring melodies and rough-and-tumble energy of the E Street musicians.

What works well, however, is the honesty in the lyrics, as Bruce, who hits 70 this year, turns over a few emotional stones to see what’s underneath. The album comes hard on the heels of his Broadway show, a sort of music-meets-therapy session that lasted a year, playing every night to intimate and adoring crowds.

The shy young man who once declared "I eat loneliness" now sings on Hello Sunshine, "You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way". Indeed, the album is populated by restless, rootless characters who seek a connection. "I’m twenty five hundred miles from where I wanna be," he sings on Sundown.

The lyrics are a highlight, although I wish sleeve designers would learn to set the words out better. Capitals at the start of every line. Commas, yes. Full stops, no. Come on, guys, it looks rubbish.

When Western Stars was released, Springsteen made a telling statement. "I’ll record with the E Street Band in autumn, and, when we are done, we’ll go on tour." This could be translated as "normal service will be resumed". There’s life in him yet, which is good to hear. The voice might be diminished, this album may not be his best, but he still retains claim to one of rock’s great catalogues.

Miles Salter