Review: Springsteen’s ‘Letter To You’ – Contemplating Mortality On E Street

Many fans of Bruce Springsteen got on the bandwagon in the ’80s when Born In The U.S.A. came out. Most of his diehard fans had already been on the bandwagon since Born To Run came out a decade earlier. I didn’t get into Springsteen until The River came out when I was in high school. Along with Pink Floyd’s The Wall it was one of my first double-album purchases. I steadily started buying every Springsteen record that came out prior to The River. However, it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school before I purchased Born To Run, after someone played that album at a “Senior Skip Day” party I had crashed to meet a girl… The meeting with the girl sadly didn’t pan out but I went out the next day and bought the album. It’s the circle of life. When God closes a pretty window he opens a rock n roll door. 

When I was a freshman in college, I came home for winter break to discover Springsteen had released his follow-up to The River, the rather bleak Nebraska. I don’t think an album has ever shocked me the way Nebraska shocked me. I expected to hear the full E Street Band burst out of the speakers like they did on “The Ties That Bind” and instead it was the muted, acoustic track “Nebraska.” I was floored. “What, pray tell, is this?” I remember thinking. I kept hoping the band would kick in… Nebraska was Springsteen’s first “solo” album where he eschewed the accompaniment of his mates in the E Street Band. At the time I thought it was a one-off project. The darker material in those songs fit that style of playing so he kept the stark demos. It actually set the template for the rest of Bruce’s career. He’d do band albums and then go off on his own to do a solo project. After Nebraska he did Born In the U.S.A. and then back to solo on Tunnel Of Love albeit with cameos from the E Street Band. 

After the tour for Tunnel Of Love, Springsteen shocked the world and disbanded the E Street Band, much to my and Clarence Clemons’ dismay. They are a legendary backing band: Roy Bittan, piano; Clarence Clemons sax; Gary Tallent, bass; Steve Van Zandt and later Nils Lofgren, guitar; Patti Scialfa, backing vocals; Danny Federici, organ; and Max Weinberg, drums. That was in roughly 1990 and for the next decade, other than brief reunions, Springsteen did his own thing. He recorded two LPs and released them on the same day, Human Touch and Lucky Town. He did the stark Ghost of Tom Joad. He finally got the E Street Band back together in 1999. I didn’t know it at the time, but he said that he wasn’t sure he could rock and roll any more. He didn’t know if he could still write songs for the band. 

All of that changed on 9/11. It was then that Springsteen reunited the mighty E Street Band in the studio to record one of his strongest set of songs. The Rising was simply brilliant. It remains to me the definitive 9/11 artistic statement. There was none of that ham-fisted, dumb-ass Toby Keith stuff. It was thoughtful and it rocked. That was one of the best tours of Springsteen’s that I’d ever seen. The E Street Band is the most sympathetic backing band for his vision. It’s like Dylan and the Band. They compliment each other so well. However, since 2002 Springsteen has bounced back and forth between solo projects and E Street Band albums. 

While the E Street Band was credited as playing on 2014’s High Hopes most of those songs had been written and recorded in the decade prior. I was shocked to see that the last actual E Street Band project was eleven years ago(!) in 2009 – the underrated Working On A Dream which was a set of hopeful songs at the dawn of the Obama administration. It followed Magic from 2007 which was a dire assessment of the Bush (W) administration. Springsteen has been busy in the interim. He wrote his widely acclaimed autobiography and then staged a one-man Broadway play based upon it (Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way). Just last year he did the sepia-toned, lush Western Stars that we loved down here at B&V, LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

I loved all of that stuff but I couldn’t help but think, when will he record with the E Street Band again. I only recently discovered Springsteen has been suffering from a bit of writer’s block. He hadn’t really written any new rock songs since around 2010. It’s probably not a coincidence that toward the end of that decade – as is pointed out to Bruce in his excellent ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine interview – that was about the time saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici both passed away. About a year ago, another friend of Bruce’s passed away, George Theiss. George was in one of Bruce’s early bands, The Castiles. I think they had a couple of singles but never amounted to much more. When Bruce realize he was the last member of the Castiles left, inspiration struck for the first time in a long time and he wrote an album’s worth of new material. 

I will admit up front, I was blown away by Letter To You, Bruce and the E Street Band’s new album. First and foremost, this is the most “E Street” sounding album Bruce has done in decades. There are glockenspiels, harmonicas, piano introductions to the tracks and sax solos (only now from Jake Clemons nephew of the late Clarence Clemons). There’s nothing like hearing Bruce play with the mighty E Street Band. Prior to recording he met with Roy Bittan who asked him not to demo the songs, he didn’t want Bruce to get locked into any arrangements. They did those live in the studio. Thematically, I thought this might end up being a political commentary on the current failed administration but as Bruce says in ‘Rolling Stone,’ that’d be the most “boring album ever.” Instead, on Letter To You Bruce confronts his own mortality and by doing so, helps us all confront our own. This album isn’t dark like Dylan’s Time Out of Mind or cheerful like McCartney’s Dance Tonight which both covered the same terrain.  

The album starts off quietly and somewhat surprisingly, with a ballad, “One Minute You’re Here” that might be one of Bruce’s most beautiful ballads ever. Coincidentally he ends with another strong track, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” that may be about Clarence. It’s a wonderful track that finds Bruce singing, “For death is not the end.” The title track, which I covered on an earlier post New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20, is one of his best songs ever. “Ghosts,” the second single is a soaring rock track with a great sax solo and certainly a favorite. “Last Man Standing” is a great rocking homage to the Castiles. In the middle of the LP is the very E Street “Power of Prayer,” a really nice love song. It’s followed up with “House of A Thousand Guitars” which I’ll admit is the only track on this album that left me slightly cold. I just expected, well, more guitar. Speaking of guitar, there are two big rockers here – “Rainmaker” and the rollin’ thunder of “Burining Train.” The latter has the best guitar work on the album. 

In the process of recording this album – which was done live in the studio by the whole band, a method of recording these guys haven’t done since the 70s – Springsteen dug out three old tracks that he’d written but never released. I don’t know if they were short on material or Bruce felt revisiting these old tracks fit in the theme of looking back as you reach the end of the road. Regardless, I’m delighted to say that the three tracks penned in the 70s are absolute highlights on this album. They rank amongst my favorite Springsteen tracks of all time. “Janey Needs A Shooter” which inspired Warren Zevon (with Bruce’s permission) to write “Jeanne Needs a Shooter,” is an epic rock song. I heard this while I was driving thru the main drag of a little neighborhood near me with the windows down and I almost crashed the car I was rocking so hard. “If I Was A Priest” is an awesome song that would have fit on The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle. Its Bruce at his most hilarious and his most Catholic. It reminds me a little of “The Ballad of Jesse James” a great deep track you should hear. “If I Were a Priest” imagines Jesus as a western cowboy hero… It’s hard to explain. “Song For An Orphan” rounds out the trio and is another epic, great track. I’d buy this album just for these three songs. 

I don’t know what the future holds for Bruce and the E Street Band. I hope this isn’t their last album together. In the liner notes on the record, the way Bruce thanks everybody it sounds like a farewell. Who knows if the inspiration will hit him again? The communion of this band coming together to play and their sense of brotherhood and loyalty is just such a pure and wonderful thing I hope it continues. They probably won’t be able to play live until 2022 but I certainly can’t wait to hear this stuff brought to life. This is yet another important album by one of our most important artists, Bruce Springsteen. This, without a doubt, will be on the B&V “best of” list this year. Everyone should hear this, especially with all the craziness in the world today. 

Be safe out there. Be good to each other. Music is salve, but it can’t cure everything. It can be a long dark ride… we have to decide what kind of people we want to be “cause there’s too many outlaws tryin’ to work the same line…” 

 

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