Album Review: Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You
With foreign travel out of reach for the foreseeable, I’ve spent some time thinking back to childhood holidays. We didn’t step foot on a plane until I was in my early-teens, there was no need to. Exotic trips to foreign lands weren’t needed. Our summers were based around road trips across the UK to visit family or holidays at coastal resorts on the Isle of Wight, North Wales or Devon. As a child these were magical experiences, getting in a packed car and setting off for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know any different, nor did I need to. A staple of those drives was the music played on the car stereo. Among the various artists that we listened were The Who, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen - the pillars of my father’s musical tastes and the tastes I have inherited - carried forward the mantle if you like.
Any new release or tour by The Boss is treated as a family affair. We feast on the publicity, associated documentaries, interviews and reviews. Sadly this year our opportunities to embrace Springsteen’s newest album, his 20th to date, as a unit are restricted due to COVID-19. However, during a time when good news is in short supply, one of the best remedies is a new Springsteen recording with the E Street Band, and Letter To You dutifully delivers.
While the musical arrangements by the band are as spirit lifting as ever, the record is a double-edged sword. With Springsteen facing the news that he had become the last surviving member of his first band, The Castilles, following the death of his friend George Theiss from cancer, he began writing many of the songs that compile Letter To You. The result is an album full of melancholy and reflection.
The central theme of the album is nakedly laid out on the opening track, One Minute You’re Here, as Springsteen gently plucks at his acoustic guitar, transmitting a song bursting in autumn years rumination. Cries of loneliness and being away from those he loves ring out. This is classic Springsteen if not with an aged, gruffer voice. It would have been easier to end the album on this track but instead it is a mellow, poignant opening, with subtle percussion and keys supporting this beautifully crafted track.
Despite being recorded in just five days at his home studio in New Jersey, nothing is lost in the output. This is evident as, inevitably, the E Street Band crank it up for the title track, the organ taking a vital front role as a wall of glorious rock music is built. Springsteen cries out the opening line ‘’neath a crown of mongrel trees / I pulled that bothersome thread / got down on my knees/ grabbed my pen and bowed my head’. This is a compelling track.
The pace does not let up, as thumping drums and ringing guitars crash open Burnin’ Train. The music is as upbeat as you will find elsewhere on the album, the E Street Band on the top of their game while Springsteen, backed by that wall of gloriously played instruments - including those spine-tingling guitar solos - delivers a fantastic vocal performance, practically soulful in places as he wrestles with his own mortality and the realisation that time is hunting him down.
Janey Needs A Shooter is the first of three old songs on the album, penned back in the seventies. It has been close to making albums of the past but never quite made it the cut. Thankfully, it now does and sounds fantastic. Coated in the magnificent clatter of the harmonica and gospel organ keys that call out the opening bars, its melody is seemingly taken from Talking About My Baby. This is a slower track that was once destined to be on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle; the emotions it evokes, telling the story of a female protagonist who is the subject of inappropriate sexual attention, suggests could easily sit on The Wild… or The River. The lyrics are intense, graphic in places, told by someone who wishes to be a saviour. It is intimate in places, harrowing in others, but stunning throughout. Possibly this reviewer’s favourite on the album…we’ll get back to you on that.
The opening lines to Last Man Standing stray towards corny during the first verse, but beyond that this is a joy of this track, particularly when the band joins - despite the sadness of the subject matter. It builds into an epic, with incredible vocals from Springsteen as he continues to grapple with mortality and the fragile human existence. Of course this song is a reference to the death of Theiss and the Boss’ position as the final surviving Castilles member. The keys on this are potent, as Springsteen cries out ‘I’m the last man standing now’, while Jake Clemons’ closing saxophone solo is every piece as magnificent as what his uncle would have laid down.
A piano introduces to The Power of Prayer, probably the weakest track on the album - but don’t let that description cloud your judgment. It is still a beautifully crafted song, Springsteen drawing on both his humble roots and catholic upbringing, while grabbing the opportunity to heap praise upon idols in the shape of Ben E. King and The Drifters. This though is just a prelude to the majestic House of Thousand Guitars, as Springsteen’s penmanship once again pulls upon his love of music as subject matter, as he has done on past tracks such as Radio Nowhere. It’s tinted in sadness and melancholy with, for large parts, the vocals only accompanied by piano. The Boss croons of how Rock and Roll can heal, singing ‘so wake and shake off your troubles my friend / we’ll go to where the music never ends’.
Just as we’re adding the final touches to this review the US general election is full swing, the final day of voting just five days away. Springsteen has never hid his political views, performing at Democratic Party rallies and threatening to emigrate to Ireland if Donald Trump wins a second term. In Rainmaker he is again outspoken, throwing his ire towards the (at the time of writing) resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, singing of a character who finds fame and fortune through mistruths, a snake oil salesman who ‘says night’s day and day’s night’ and their devoted followers who will believe what they are told and ready to forgive their hero’s ills - even blaming others for their short comings (‘come to make damn sure this mean season’s got nothing to do with them’). As we approach the polling day, it’s a hell of a track to be coming out of the voters’ stereos.
Another of the older songs on the record is the excellent If I Was The Priest, an odyssey of a song, with its stunted guitar intro - a subtle change of musical direction. Here the band sounds like it is having real fun, the keys and harmonica a delight. Clearly Springsteen was pulling on some Dylan influences all those years ago, both in the delivery and in the writing, the words zealous and poetic, with Springsteen screaming out lines about the Virgin Mary who ‘runs the Holy Grail saloon / for a nickel she'll give you whiskey and a personally blessed balloon / and the Holy Ghost is the host with the most, he runs the burlesque show / where they'll let you in for free and they hit you when you go’. Close your eyes and let the words take you. It’s a wonderful sight, behind those eyelids, before it fades out with a sumptuous guitar solo that delivers you back to reality. This might actually be your reviewer’s standout track - it certainly is his father’s. Maybe we call it a score draw…is it any coincidence that rivals are two of the older songs on the album?
The spirit of Springsteen’s former work, former band mates and friends echo throughout Ghosts. It’s a stunning piece of uplifting rock music, as The Boss tackles sadness and age and how it can be brushed aside with the strum of an electric guitar - and what a sound that guitar and the others make on this track; the hairs on the back of your neck will stand on end. Even more so when we reach the first of two breaks they are soul lifting as the keys kick in and the drums steadily build. The second rises towards the song’s conclusion, coated in hand claps, glockenspiel and backing chanting. The arrangement is gorgeous, the production by Ron Aniello perfect. This is as feel good as this album gets.
The tempo is slowed with the country-inspired Song For Orphans, the final in the trio of older tracks and again aches with Bob Dylan inspiration - this could be a late-60s/early-70s Dylan closing track. Its harmonica arousing a sense of finality, The Boss’ delivery of his graceful words beautiful as he whisks us through a tale of losers, has-beens and unfulfilled dreams, as Springsteen again grapples with the passing of time and that everything must come to an end.
Speaking of which - we arrive at the final track. But before we delve into that, a word on the vinyl version. Vinyl is an expensive hobby [ED: a ‘View’ piece on this subject will soon be out soon] but with it artists and labels keep pushing the boundaries on the quality of the product. The artwork for Letter To You is stunning; the liner notes are a joy to hold, a tangible treat, while the tracing paper record sleeves are exquisite. As a double vinyl, the “D Side” contains a beautiful etching of Springsteen’s silhouette. Your reviewer was lucky enough to get hold of a ‘bundle’ release of the record, including the grey vinyl. That still remains wrapped up, a Christmas present for a lucky father.
I’ll See You In My Dreams is an apt end to this album, putting an upbeat spin on the subject matter of the record, with lines such as ‘for death is not the end / and I’ll see you in my dreams’. We are gifted one last taste of the E Street Band at full tilt, eeking out every last drop of whatever it is that makes them tick as a musical unit, the guitar and keys solos stunning, creating such atmosphere in a song where Springsteen muses that ‘we’ll meet and live and laugh again’. Even if this song is about the passage of time and life, that line takes on even more meaning in a year where it felt like our lives have been put on pause, with families and friends separated.
This is Springsteen’s most honest album for years and arguably the best of his most recent releases. It is also a much welcome return of the E Street Band, let loose to play to their strengths, to bring to the fore what makes them so special. In the beautifully compiled accompanying film released via Apple TV, Springsteen speaks of life, how quickly it passes and those you lose on the way. It is somber, yet uplifting and continually authentic, a true reflection of this LP. Letter To You is a stunning success. It’s hardly stopped spinning in our house and on this form we can only hope The Boss doesn’t stop anytime soon either.