Bruce Springsteen’s twentieth studio album, Letter To You, begins slowly, retrospectively, and though it may be disappointing to some to hear Springsteen essentially picking up where he left off after Western Stars, don’t be fooled, because his first true album with The E Street Band in thirty years needs this. Not only does “One Minute You’re Here” connect with one of the album’s most rocking tracks – “Baby I’m so alone… Baby, I’m coming home” – it immediately summarises Bruce Springsteen’s current state of mind, and it reaffirms to us what he’s been telling us for years now: You have a limited amount of time. Yes, we have to wait that little bit longer for what we’re really here for, but this Devils & Dust-esque track does an tremendous job of setting the album’s tone from the get-go.
You’d have to go back to Auckland, February 2017 for the last time Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band played together, but with the pounding of Max Weinberg’s drums, the wail of guitars from Bruce, Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, and the soaring organ of Charlie Giordano over the course of three hours one day in November 2019 for “Letter To You”, all you can say is that they’re back! This was the first single from the album released back on September 10th, and I’ll be honest in saying that it’s been on rotation ever since. With no overdubs, the joyous sounds of high-pitched cries of “trueeee” and “bluueee“, beautiful piano fills from Roy Bittan (check out 3:50!) and the intimacy of Bruce calling back to the history he’s shared with all of us, there’s no finer re-introduction after three years away.
The rocking doesn’t stop there either, oh no, as we jump on the “Burnin’ Train” for a momentary ride away from our histories and mortalities for just some good old fashioned rock and roll. Bruce told Brian Hiatt for a Rolling Stone interview in the build up to this release that there were plans of a 2021 world tour, but unfortunately like everything else we’ve been looking forward to this year, the pandemic quickly put a stop to that. 2022 is the earliest timeframe that we’ll be hearing this song live, and with how good the guitar solos are on this one, 2022 really can’t hurry up quick enough!
On an album that is mostly good with a few questionable tracks, the end of “Burnin’ Train” brings us to the first of three revelations on Letter To You. “Janey Needs a Shooter”, alongside “If I Was the Priest” and “Song For Orphans”, raised eyebrows upon the reveal of the track-list on account of having been written in, and circulating since, the 1970s – “Orphans” was even released on a live album last year and the full band effort is played similarly. And my God do these three explode out of that vault with triumph as the album’s ultimate highlights. These fantastic fables written by a explorative young man over forty years ago are sang with grizzled experience and played with expertise by a band who haven’t sounded as good a well oiled machine as they do from five minutes into “If I Was the Priest” in a long long time. My immediate reaction to seeing these three on this album was one of uncertainty and concern about Bruce recycling old songs for a new album, but after listening to that stunningly sang “Priest” a good five times now, I implore Bruce to find as many oldies as he can for album #21!
“Last Man Standing” brings us back to the fragility of time as a tribute to George Theiss, the lead singer of Bruce’s first band, The Castilles. Theiss passed away last year, and after visiting him shortly beforehand, Bruce was inspired to write this song. This is one of those tracks that is truly more of a story than a song, where Bruce shares with us intimate moments of his youth that are now tinged with the sadness of being the last one left. I love some of the lyrics in this one, such as “you take the crowd on their mystery ride“, and I adore his vocals as he hits his high notes. It’s also nice to hear Bruce Springsteen, one of the greatest performers of all time, sing about his friend’s showmanship with admiration, and you can sense the influence he took from Theiss as a result. The standout moment in this one for me is in Bruce’s voice echoing off into the ether singing, “I’m the last man standing now“, as Jake busts in with the sax. Of course, this reminds us that unfortunately, Theiss isn’t the only loss he’s suffered.
The double header of “The Power of Prayer” and “House of a Thousand Guitars” up next are the weakest sequence of the album. “Prayer” is catchy, and is sure to work nicely as a sequel to “I’ll Work For Your Love” from the Magic album courtesy of its solid lyricism, but to hear him sing “baby that’s the power of prayer!” is leaning a bit too much into the camp of Christian rock and that’s not what I look for in the music of Bruce Springsteen. It’s a shame too, as that coda led by Jake and Roy really is excellent. My issues with the next song – which I feel inclined to mention is not a cover of the Willie Nile track – also lie in the delivery of the actual title, which doesn’t flow well for me at all – it doesn’t help that he repeats it multiple times in succession. Honestly though, after these early listens and how I ultimately grew to “There Goes My Miracle” on Western Stars, I’m happy to give this one a chance over the coming months.
Since a particular moment in politics in 2016, something people have been wanting from Bruce Springsteen is a politically driven album. Or more so, an anti-Trump album. It’s evident thirty minutes in that this is not that kind of album, and to put all minds at ease that album will never come – “That would be the most boring album of all time!” is how Bruce reacted when asked about the possibility of a record citing the flaws of the President, but this track – one of the four written prior to the rest of the album – does happen to be about a con man who comes into a town and eventually leaves with the house on fire. Bruce recently confirmed in an interview that he wrote this with George W. Bush in mind, but believes it suits the current commander-in-chief much more. It’s not a great song, but one that gets better as it goes on, and knowing the context behind it does allow us to appreciate the vitriol in Bruce’s voice as he sings “RAINMAKER!” all the more. For as much as I don’t like his repetition of “house of a thousand guitars“, right now I think I could listen to him sing 4:06 onwards all day (And I just might!).
“Ghosts” was the second single released on September 24th – the day after Springsteen’s 71st birthday as a gift to the fans – and was received with delight and immediate shouts for it to be the opening song on every show on the next tour. It’s another song that deals with time slipping away and friends lost, but where “One Minute” and “Last Man Standing” beforehand are sombre, this is the hard-rocking tribute that will have Springsteen’s fallen brothers smiling above. This one takes the mightiness of drums, guitars and vocals within “Letter To You” and turns them up a few notches higher (and then some), while also tying in with “One Minute You’re Here” – “I need you by side… I’m alive, and I’m out here on my own… I’m alive, and I’m coming home!” – and “If I Were the Priest” by referencing that “old buckskin jacket” and those “boots and spurs you always wore“. If anyone was worried the combination of older songs and newly penned ones would strip this album of links and make it more High Hopes than Darkness on the Edge of Town, well, without saying it’s as good as the latter, I will say it leans more in that direction (and I’m saying that as a big fan of High Hopes too!). After nearly a month of playing this on repeat alongside the title track, I’ve been trying to confirm my favourite aspect of this song, and now with the rest of the album behind it, I think it’s undeniable that 3:21 onwards is Pièce De Résistance. From the magical sprinkles of Roy’s piano, to Stevie’s exceptional backing vocals, to Max’s build, to those shouts of “I’M ALIVE!“. Peak E Street!
After last year’s critically acclaimed Western Stars, this has been the quickest succession of albums since the less acclaimed combination of Human Touch and Lucky Town released on the same day in 1992. The five year wait for new music was long, but Western Stars and now Letter To You have more than made up for the wait, so turn up the music and sing those “la la las” loud!
Following “Song For Orphans”, which as mentioned is similar in execution to the live performances from 2005 – just with the added bonus of The E Street Band’s contributions – Bruce brings it back to his Broadway epilogue to close the album out with “I’ll See You in My Dreams”. In that epilogue he spoke of those he’s lost – his father, aunts, Terry Magovern, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Bart Haynes, Walter Cichon – and he mentions how he’s looking forward to feeling their hands on him someday, one more time. This is unsurprisingly a sad song where he pulls no punches about telling us the pain he feels on a daily basis about losing his friends and family, but there’s an optimistic melody, and we do get optimistic lyrics – “for death is not the end” – that serve to remove some of the weight from George Theiss’ death in particular for him and the burden of Bruce being the last man standing. As a bookend to “One Minute You’re Here”, it’s perfect in reiterating that time is fragile and that it can’t be wasted.
Springsteen’s twentieth album combines slow reminisces about the past and those lost alongside mighty rockers – both old and new – for an essential Springsteen and The E Street Band experience. It’s a fascinating album that combines aspects of multiple albums, from Devils & Dust to Magic, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ to The River. That said, the final product is something truly refreshing on the ears and an album you’re likely to be playing on repeat for months on end.
Thanks for reading this review of Bruce Springsteen’s newest album, Letter To You, available on October 23rd. I hope you enjoyed it! I’ll be back next weekend with a review of the accompanying documentary film to this album, which will also be released on Apple TV on October 23rd. See you then!