Letter To You

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia, 2020

http://www.brucespringsteen.net

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/16/2020

“Big black train comin’ down the track
Blow your whistle long and long
One minute you’re here
Next minute you’re gone”

Among his many gifts, Bruce Springsteen has a knack for stepping up to meet the moment, whatever that might be.

The operatic coming-of-age album Born To Run hit as the world of rock music was transitioning from free-form artistic playground to big business. The simultaneously shiny and subversive stadium rock of Born In The USA arrived as the nation was clawing its way out of the recession he’d chronicled two years before in Nebraska. And just when the nation needed it the most, The Boss delivered 2002’s fervent, hopeful hymn to resilience The Rising.

Unlike USA or The Rising—or even 2012’s Wrecking Ball, his most recent full album of originals with the E Street Band—Letter To You isn’t at all political on the surface, spending much of its considerable energy celebrating lost friends and the inevitable march of time. Those losses have mounted in recent years. First to depart this mortal coil was Springsteen’s longtime assistant Terry Magovern in 2007, followed soon after by two founding members of the E Street Band, organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. More recently, Springsteen was hit hard by the passing of George Theiss, leader of his high school band The Castiles, whose death left Springsteen as the last living member of that group.

Still, these grooves feel like they also chart another, larger set of losses experienced over the last four years—a loss of innocence and optimism under the weight of the daily blizzard of lies and cruelty emanating from our nation’s capital. When Springsteen describes a particularly oily and mendacious con man in “Rainmaker,” it’s obvious not just who he’s talking about, but how deeply the choice others have made to follow this transparent charlatan wounds him. Through losses of all kinds his savior, as always, is music. A lapsed Catholic, Springsteen the songwriter has frequently drawn on the language of faith, but the spiritual undercurrents of his work have rarely been more explicit than on Letter To You, dotted with song titles like “The Power Of Prayer” and “If I Was The Priest.”

In the process of looking back on his life, Springsteen also rescued a trio of tunes from his personal songwriting vault that predate his 1972 debut Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. These three songs from his early “new Dylan” phase only further the sense of nostalgia and summing-up that permeates Letter To You.

The album opens with the spare and hymn-like “One Minute You’re Here,” a sort of overture to loss with just acoustic guitar, gentle synthesizer textures, bells and percussion behind Springsteen’s somber lead vocal. Understated as it is, it sets the tone. The title track unleashes the full impact of the eight-strong E Street Band, a sturdy rocker that finds Springsteen drawing together the threads of his artistic life: “I took all the sunshine and rain / All my happiness and all my pain / The dark evening stars and the morning sky of blue / And I sent it in my letter to you.” The lyric feels a bit generic at first, but once you appreciate the scope of what he’s trying to capture here—an entire lifetime spent making music—it’s impressive.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Batting third, “Burnin’ Train” is a galloping rocker that drummer Max Weinberg drives hard as Stevie Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, and Springsteen’s guitars wail above, featuring a gorgeous lyric that melds themes of sex, death, and faith into a single elemental moment of transcendence. Next is the first of three songs that date back to Springsteen’s early days as a Dylan acolyte. “Janey Needs A Shooter” assumes a stately pace while leaning on swelling organ and guitar, with a distinct Born To Run feel in both its flowery story-song lyrics and its airy, dramatic arrangement.

The specter of death takes center stage again in the nostalgic rocker “Last Man Standing,” which rides a chiming piano line that’s doubled on guitar and punctuated at the climax by a brief, passionate sax solo, with Jake Clemons channeling his Uncle Clarence beautifully. The lyric features Springsteen restating his belief in music as a means of salvation—“Rock of ages lift me somehow / Somewhere high and hard and loud / Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd”—before making the point even more explicitly in “The Power Of Prayer.”  More chiming piano, again doubled on guitar, again punctuated by lyrical sax, is featured as Springsteen sings of music as faith and salvation: “Last call, the bouncer shuts the door / ‘This Magic Moment’ drifts across the floor / As Ben E. King’s voice fills the air / Baby, that’s the power of prayer.”

Curiously, the track with the powerhouse title—“House Of A Thousand Guitars”—feels like the weakest link here, a sing-songy, pensive number with almost no guitar; it’s all piano and organ and gospel-tinged vocals as Springsteen recasts live music venues as houses of faith. After that trio of earnest spirituals, “Rainmaker” is a bit of a left turn, reminiscent of “Magic” in its dark suckered-by-a-con-man lyric and Wrecking Ball in its big, airy, fiddle- and organ-heavy sound. The second salvaged early composition, “If I Was The Priest,” features some of Springsteen’s most Dylanesque writing and singing, dense, wordy verses giving way to rolling/tumbling choruses, heavy on the organ and punctuated by ringing guitar chords, building up a healthy head of steam along the way.

The thundering heart of Letter To You is “Ghosts,” an urgent, moving anthem and elegy to all those bandmates and brothers who’ve gone on ahead. “It’s just your ghost / Moving through the night / Your spirit filled with light / I need, need you by my side,” he sings, before putting everything he has into the punchline: “Your love and I’m alive.” It’s one of those songs that makes me ache to hear live music again, if only to experience an entire arena singing along to that chorus. Here music becomes not just a spiritual experience, but a way to commune with his missing comrades: “I shoulder your Les Paul and finger the fretboard / I make my vows to those who’ve come before / I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide / Meet you brother and sister on the other side.”

Near the close Springsteen pulls one more tune out of the pre-Greetings vaults. The out-and-out Dylan pastiche “Song For Orphans” feels like coming full circle and features resonant guitar work—and if it feels like a bit of a letdown after “Ghosts,” what wouldn’t? Springsteen finishes up with a complement to “Ghosts,” the ringing, elegiac “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” an ode to the end of the road we will all face one day: “I’ll see you in my dreams / When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams / We’ll meet and live and laugh again / I’ll see you in my dreams / Up around the riverbend / For death is not the end / And I’ll see you in my dreams.”

Rather than shying away from the reality that any album made at this stage of life could be his last, the 71-year-old Springsteen leans into the moment and rages beautifully against the dying of the light. While it can’t match the sheer intensity of classics like Born To Run or Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Letter To You is as vibrant and powerful an album as anyone could have hoped for from The Boss in 2020, a capstone that looks both all the way back to the beginning and up the road ahead to the legacy that he’s long since earned. Perhaps most remarkably, despite its focus on the weight of loss and the inevitability of death, Letter To You’s ultimate message is one of comfort and hope—and hope is a beautiful thing.

Rating: B+

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