Greg Fleming looks at two recent releases from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

The release in June of Bruce Springsteen's 19th album Western Stars and Martin Scorsese's documentary about Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue offers a chance to contrast two of rock's finest artists as they move into their fourth quarter.

Both projects involve looking back, Springsteen stylistically to the early 70s, string-laden stylings of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb; Dylan literally — to the Rolling Thunder Revue — his most ambitious touring project where a rag-tag bunch of musicians, hipsters, hangers-on and family (even Dylan's mother Beatty Zimmerman for a time) travelled throughout America plying their wares in school halls and small venues.

The tour ran through 1975 to '76 but the film focuses on the more successful '75 outing of the Northeast.

Of course, Dylan and his people have been marketing his rich archives for years via The Bootleg Series (and this too comes with a 14-CD collection of many unreleased rehearsals and outtakes). While this doco will have limited appeal beyond hardcore fans, it is a revealing look back at the freedom and power marquee stars such as Dylan (who was in his mid- 30s then) wielded.

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We see tour manager Louie Kemp take Dylan on a surprise visit to CBS head-office in New York — and you won't see a better visual representation of the uncomfortable synergies between label and artist; apparently Kemp even got then-CBS head Walter Yetnikoff to cough up $100,000 for touring expenses (still the tours lost money).

Dylan on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Pic Getty.
Dylan on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue. Pic Getty.

Dylan meanwhile (now 78), seems bemused by the project when asked in a rare contemporary interview — (apparently conducted by longtime manager Jeff Rosen) — saying he can hardly remember it — "It happened so long ago I wasn't even born" — which is exactly the kind of thing you'd expect Dylan to say.

Later he says, "if someone's wearing a mask, he's gonna tell you the truth ... if he isn't wearing a mask, not so much", which certainly applies to Dylan's cathartic on-stage performances — all done wearing Kabuki-style pancake makeup.

Recently Roger McGuinn (who duets with Dylan on a shaky Knockin' On Heaven's Door looking considerably worse for wear) told Rolling Stone that he now sees the impulse behind the tour as being a revival of the spirit of the '60s.

"It happened so long ago I wasn't even born"

"It was like the Village. It was like the days in the early '60s where we were all hanging out at coffee houses and passing the hat around."

After the Nixon debacle and in the aftermath of Vietnam — a travelling medicine show with a bunch of friends (including poet Allen Ginsberg and playwright Sam Shepard) might've seemed just the ticket.

FACT/FICTION

The film's self-conscious fictions — a fake tour manager and a real-life Sharon Stone mugging about being on the tour among them — seem unnecessary embellishments — it's those incandescent performances of a soon-to-be divorced Dylan you'll return to.

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He howls these songs from the stage, his voice out front in the mix. Highlights include a visceral Isis, a righteous The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol (which Baez tells Dylan is one of his best songs) and an angry A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall.

There, Dylan serves verse after verse with the kind of lightning fury we now associate with hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar or Vince Staples.

So, musically speaking, this is a winner, capturing a great musical artist at the height of their powers.

The band — directed by bass player Rob Stoner included T-Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, witchy violinist Scarlet Rivera and Ronee Blakely — is remarkable and surprisingly deft given its size. Also good is some intriguing behind-the-scenes footage — Joni Mitchell performing the newly written Coyote while McGuinn and others scramble to figure out the chords, a dazed Patti Smith at a party trying to out-Dylan Dylan as he looks on with bemusement, and footage of Allen Ginsberg reading his poem Kaddish to a bewildered bunch of mah jong-playing ladies; but the parts never really cohere — it looks like what it is — a film cobbled together from decades-old footage with some present day mischief sprinkled in.

And no doubt that's the way nostalgia-averse Dylan wants it.

QUESTIONS

Dylan's intention with the tour is never really explained — no-one really takes the Bicentennial thing very seriously — was it a mid-life crisis, the impending divorce? Something to do to get out of the house? And why no mention of Desire collaborator and tour director Jacques Levy or regular sidekick Bob Neuwirth who were both on tour?

And why not play it straight? An in-depth on-camera interview with Rock's reclusive star would've been gold — after all Scorcese has done it before in 2005's No Direction Home; the mockumentary aspects of this belong in a student film — and Dylan's already made Renaldo and Clara (from which much of this is drawn).

The most memorable presence here, beside Dylan, is Joan Baez — who Dylan describes as "a meteorite come down to earth".

Her duets with him, the short clips of her own performances (the dancing!) are mesmerising, while her wry musings on Dylan (she would jokingly make herself up to look like Dylan on the tour) in both present-day and archival interviews are the only moments when we get a nuanced view of the man — a glimpse behind the mask. One only wishes her rendition of Diamonds and Rust (about her relationship with Dylan in the 60s), which she performed on the tour, had made the cut.

WESTERN STARS

Springsteen too has, since the release of Wrecking Ball (2012), focused on past achievements. 2016's candid autobiography Born to Run then the year-long Broadway residency based on it — and the 89-date E-Street Band The River tour, which ended here in Auckland in 2017.

But, if Dylan has rarely dropped the mask, Springsteen (who'll be 70 in September) has, in his later years, laid himself bare, especially in that autobiography where he details his problems with depression, periods of writer's block and his father's recurring battles with mental illness.

The new album is confessional songwriting of a high order that draws on an array of hard-luck characters who are all past their prime, often regretting their past actions and burying themselves in work and other distractions to cope.

There's the cowboy roping horses in Montana like he's paying a penance in Chasin Wild Horses: "I make sure I work 'til I'm so damn tired/Way too tired to think", the crane operator hoping to make up for past mistakes with the arrival of his girl on the Tucson Train, the failed songwriter of Somewhere North of Nashville, or the ageing actor of Western Stars — "On the set the makeup girl brings me two raw eggs and a shot of gin/Then I give it all up for that little blue pill/That promises to bring it all back to you again".

If, lyrically, the songs tread familiar Springsteen territory, these humble stories are set to a wide-screen musical backdrop.

Springsteen told Variety it's influenced by Southern California pop music of the '70s: "Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, those kinds of records. I don't know if people will hear those influences, but that was what I had in my mind. It gave me something to hook an album around; it gave me some inspiration to write. And also, it's a singer-songwriter record. It's connected to my solo records writing-wise, more Tunnel of Love and Devils and Dust but it's not like them at all. Just different characters living their lives."

Sound-wise there's plenty of forerunners in the Springsteen canon — 1995's lush Secret Garden, the operatic bombast of Queen of the Supermarket from Working on a Dream, the lush live reworking of New York Serenade in Rome in 2013 — and, for the most part, the production — by Ron Aniello and Springsteen — works, lending depth and drama to the most interesting set of songs Springsteen has penned for many years (and these are at least a decade old, written and recorded while Obama was President).

AGEING TALES

There are some stumbles — Sleepy Joe's Cafe — is not only a slight song, it doesn't fit here; while the openers Hitch Hikin' and The Wayfarer seem like warm-ups to the more serious studies of masculine noir to come (best summed up in a line from Drive Fast (The Stuntman): "I liked the pedal and I didn't mind the wall."

Sure, some tracks — Sundown, the Orbisonesque There Goes My Miracle — don't stand up to too much scrutiny — but Springsteen saves the best for last.

In Moonlight Motel a man revisits an old trysting place to mourn a past love who seems not only gone, but likely dead.

When he pulls up in his car he finds it "boarded up and gone like an old summer song/ Nothing but an empty shell ... / I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag/ Poured one for me and one for you as well/ Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot/ To the Moonlight Motel".

It's a bleak beauty of a song that cuts deeper with each listen.

It also has one of Springsteen's best vocals on an album rich with great vocal takes.

That said, your take on this album will depend on whether these dour, lovingly crafted tales of late-life male isolation strike a chord.

This is the flipside to Thunder Road.

These men aren't who they thought they were; age and experience has levelled them ("I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone/ A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home" sings one) they've hit the wall more than once, and, like their chronicler, have far more road behind them than ahead.

●Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese — streaming now on Netflix

Western Stars — Bruce Springsteen — on all streaming services

Key tracks: Western Stars, Moonlight Motel, Tucson Train
Greg Fleming is an Auckland-based writer and musician.