Just over a year after his previous album, the wonderfully smoooooth California-pop-meets-country Western Stars, the 71-year-old rocker from New Jersey is set to release yet another album.
There’s a slightly unusual “origin story” behind Letter to You. During one of Bruce Springsteen’s 236 (!) Broadway shows (2017-2018) a fan gifted him an acoustic guitar. The gift stirred some well-spring of inspiration and, using precisely this guitar, Springsteen wrote and composed almost the entire album in just under 10 days.
In conversation with the legendary director, Martin Scorsese in May of last year, Springsteen announced that he had “suddenly” written an entire album:
It’s like I’ve spent about seven years without writing anything for the band. I couldn’t write anything for the band. And I said, ‘Well, of course … you’ll never be able to do that again!’ It has to come to you in inspiration. And then about a month or so ago, I wrote almost an album’s worth of material for the band. And (…) it just came out of almost nowhere. And it was good, you know. It makes you so happy. You go, ‘Fuck, I’m not fucked, all right? There’ll be another tour!
The rock legend was right about the album but seeing Springsteen live in a packed stadium with 40-60,000 screaming fans, is, unfortunately (thanks to some Pangolin-eating folks in China), far from guaranteed in the near future. We’ll have to cross our fingers for 2022…
Down memory lane
Letter to You is The Boss’s 20th studio album since his debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. in 1973 – it’s an album that takes him back to both a classic E Street sound and down some well-worn paths, sprinkled with nostalgic memories.
The album appears as an organic extension of Springsteen’s autobiographical trilogy, comprising the book Born to Run, the Springsteen on Broadway shows and the Western Stars album/film. Once again, he is viewing life retrospectively. He has even included three songs from the period before he ever signed a record deal, although recorded afresh for Letter to You.
There’s not much remaining of Springsteen’s recurring themes of cars, dreams of women, escape and ordinary blue-collar guys struggling in life and love. At the age of 71, he’s moved on from that stage.
His themes now are old friends, some of them dead, old age, loss, sentimentality, mortality and ghosts. That said, the album is not one long unbroken lament; The Boss has found plenty of room for some of the joy of life among his phantoms and spirits.
Rescued from oblivion
It is astonishing how well the older material melds with the newly written. Springsteen wrote three of the songs before he had released a single album, in the early 1970s. Including the textually complex and challenging If I Was The Priest:
And Jesus is standing in the doorway
In a buckskin jacket, boots and spurs so fine
He says, “We need you, son, tonight up in Dodge City
‘Cause there’s just too many outlaws
Tryin’ to work the same line”
This is from the period when Springsteen (in the eyes of the suits at Columbia Records) was going to be marketed as “The New Dylan”. The only problem was that the world didn’t need a new Dylan, the old one was alive and well, plus the “new Dylan” had yet to perfect his playing style.
The start is utterly low key, pained and almost sacred, like a quiet song around the campfire, as Springsteen hums about the train that comes and then suddenly vanishes — just like his loved ones. Relations are as fleeting as the train that arrives and then, in the next minute, fades out into eternity.
With clear echoes of country and blues music, One Minute You’re Here could almost be a relic from Western Stars or a hybrid born of The Ghost of Tom Joad and the Western Stars style. Or a song taken from the eclectic catalogue of country legend Merle Haggard.
Loss and loneliness (two of The Boss’s favourite themes) are in pronounced focus on the album’s best track:
Baby baby baby
I’m so alone
Baby baby baby
I’m coming home
I thought I knew just who I was
And what I’d do but I was wrong
One minute you’re here
Next minute you’re gone
From there on out, it’s the veteran rocker, the live performance feeling, the ecstasy and a wall of sound á la Phil Spector with Springsteen’s old blood brothers from the E Street Band that dominate. There are “countless” guitars, saxophone, glockenspiel, singalong moments and la, la, la, la, la.
The title track itself is good but no more than that. Nice lyrics, but the song is a little tame and generic; it never quite takes off and becomes almost too nice. Letter to You could potentially be seen as a sequel to last year’s most beautiful song, Hello Sunshine – now that the character has finally vocalized his emotions, written them down and moved on.
The train journey continues on the third song, Burnin’ Train, an uptempo rock number peppered with country elements. In some ways, it’s a pushy, aggressive song.
Then we’re presented with the first song from his rich vault, Janey Needs a Shooter. A splendid, tenacious, rock song reminiscent of the garrulous style of classics like Spirit in the Night and It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City. The most virile song from the old days. We can well understand the comparison with Dylan.
Last Man Standing is unashamedly evocative of his very first band, The Castiles; the singer George Theiss died six months before Springsteen wrote the song. A catchy song with a good, driving rhythm and elegant saxophone.
Power of Prayer, while it may be a hymn to the joys of band life and live music remains, unfortunately, completely forgettable.
House of a Thousand Guitars is among the album’s weakest, reviving memories of the terrible Queen of the Supermarket from the Working on a Dream album. A lightly catchy melody and Springsteen’s vocals shine, but with an enervating, repetitive refrain that almost clings to your brain.
Despite this being an election year, with a candidate that Springsteen has not been reticent about condemning and with the album being released two weeks before the next president of the United States is elected, there’s little that counts as direct political polemic among the lyrics.
The exception being the album’s hardest rock song, Rainmaker:
Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
We’ll leave interpretation to the listener but Rainmaker is definitely one of the album’s strongest songs.
Rough-edged and playful but uneven
Letter to You grows on you after several plays. It’s not as immediately captivating, or overwhelming, as last year’s Western Stars, which blew us away after the first listen. Nor is it as consistent as the more polished Wrecking Ball (2012).
The album brings to mind Springsteen’s classic cornucopia, The River (1981). With a slightly fuzzy/unfocused genre mix of songs, playfulness and the delightful live performance style of play. Almost a little rough at the edges, and we like it!
Add to this the fact album was recorded in just 4 to 5 (!) days last November, in Springsteen’s own home studio in Colts Neck, New Jersey – with minimal use of overdubbing.
The recording process itself has been richly documented by director Thom Zimny in the documentary “Letter to You”, which you can stream on Apple TV+ from October 23.
Wall of sound
Despite a wall of sound and plenty of guitar focus, ample space has been granted to Roy Bittan’s sober piano playing, thus providing a necessary breathing space in several of the songs.
It’s obvious that the band members and The Boss enjoyed the recording process, the songs are tight, intense and occasionally over-freighted; produced by regular Springsteen collaborator Ron Aniello, with whom he has worked closely since 2012.
On the operatic rock number Ghosts,The Boss nails it perfectly! It’s like having a shot of adrenaline injected right into your left ventricle – and is a song that is crying out to be brought on the road and hollered in front of 120,000 cheering fans at a giant stadium.
While there’s no doubt Springsteen is gazing into the rear view mirror on a very personal album, paying tribute to band members and deceased soul mates, Letter to You is also a tribute to fans. When he sings “I need, need you by my side, your love and I’m alive” it’s a declaration of love to band members, family and fans. There, towards the end of the song, Jake Clemons is allowed to shine with a delightful sax solo that his uncle (the late Clarence “Big Man” Clemons) would surely acknowledge with a knowing nod.
It’s just your ghost moving through the night
Your spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I’m alive
We’d like to hear Song for Orphans in a completely stripped-down, acoustic, version. This album version is overproduced and the fascinating lyrics are almost drowned out. Orphans is made for harmonica and an acoustic guitar, sung while sitting on a creaking stool á la the Nebraska album.
The album bows out beautifully with the thematically appropriate I’ll See You in My Dreams. This is how a troubadour and poet speaks at 70+ who has slowly but surely begun to accept his own mortality:
The road is long and seeming without end
The days go on, I remember you my friend
And though you’re gone and my heart’s been empty it seems
I’ll see you in my dreams
Though this song, too, might also have been performed in a more stripped-down version.
A unique standard
While other rock and pop artists from the 1980s and 90s occasionally prance around the globe on pure best of tours, The Boss has rarely been more productive than in this period after age 60. We can’t think of any musicians of Springsteen’s age who are still so virile and, not least, make such relevant music – at an age of over 70.
In addition, he still releases coherent albums, with a clear thematic unity. They are meant to be heard from A-Z, as one organism they tell a unique story.
His marathon concerts remain a blissful mix of classics from his versatile catalogue and new material. An artist who still leaves a mark and insists on his relevance to his era, fans and the world of music.
There’s an emphatic continuity running through Springsteen’s lengthy career, a career that has always reflected where he himself stands at exactly this point in life; this time round he looks backwards and confronts his own past, age, wisdom, career and friendship.
Letter to You is a solid and highly personal album, which is guaranteed to satisfy hardcore fans, but probably won’t win over so many new fans. The album has (with the exception of Ghosts and Rainmaker) few instant single hits, but that’s not the intention behind it either – it should be experienced, and heard, as a holistic narrative.
Definitely a powerful rock album, but Springsteen himself (with immortal classics such as Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska (to this day his best album), Tunnel of Love and Western Stars) has set the bar so high that the rock legend, truth be told, has set a unique standard for himself.
We are awarding 4 sparkling bright stars to “The Soul of America” and look forward to seeing him (post-Covid-19) “Further on Up the Road”!
Letter to You is released on October 23.
1. One Minute You’re Here
2. Letter to You
3. Burnin’ Train
4. Janey Needs a Shooter
5. Last Man Standing
6. The Power of Prayer
7. House of a Thousand Guitars
9. If I Was The Priest
11. Song For Orphans
12. I’ll See You In My Dreams