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…” 

 

New Single: Springsteen’s “Letter To You,” The 1st Track From New LP & A Look At His 1st Singles ’80-’20

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As I’ve often documented in these pages, before I heard the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls the only time I turned on the radio was to hear a Royals’ baseball game. Then I heard “Miss You,” and later “Shattered” and then “Beast of Burden” and suddenly I wanted a stereo for Christmas. I consider that moment when I first heard the Stones on the car radio, riding with my mother no less, as my rock and roll awakening. It was late 1978 when all this happened and by then rock and roll was a good 20 years along. When you step into the middle of something, it’s really hard to catch up. 

Most of the rock and roll acts I dig (by 1978) were deep into their careers. There had been a lot of great music released in the previous 10 years, let alone the previous 20 years. I was newly into my teens and on a weekly allowance of $10 it’s really hard to purchase the entire back catalogs of rock bands/artists (especially with the constant refrain of, “You didn’t clean your room son, no allowance this week…”). In high school, my fledgling vinyl collection – and I was all vinyl, don’t give me those 8-tracks or cassettes – consisted of the albums that were being released at the time, the current stuff. My first Who album was Face Dances. My first Zeppelin album was In Through the Out Door. And while many of you rock aficionados may hold your nose for those records, they will always have a place in my heart (B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?). 

While Springsteen’s landmark album Darkness On The Edge Of Town also came out in 1978, some how I missed it. I lived in Kansas City and it was never a huge Springsteen town. I did hear “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands” on the radio but I’m not sure I even knew they were both by Springsteen. There was just so much to absorb it was hard to keep track. All of that changed in late 1980 with the release of The River. I remember the first single “Hungry Heart” caught my attention. It was pure ear candy. Bruce had originally written it for the Ramones but his manager told him he best keep that one. I didn’t rush out and buy The River however because its was a double-album. Twice the music but alas, at twice the price. That was a major financial commitment on my allowance. I hadn’t even bought The Wall yet due to similar financial constraints and it had been out a year by then… Plus I didn’t know much about Springsteen… was he cool? did he rock? You had to be sure you didn’t buy any lame artists and I was always cautious. I had seen too many of my friends buy Kiss albums and I considered them suspect at the time. I feared history would not treat them well… naturally I was wrong. I was 13, what did I know?

Luckily, the local rock radio station started playing more deep cuts from the album. After hearing the title track, “Point Blank” and “Out In the Street” I knew Springsteen delivered the goods. He was a special kind of artist. I plunked down the hard earned dough and bought it. I nervously dropped the needle on side 1 of the first album not knowing what to expect. I can still remember the rush I felt when “The Ties That Bind” burst out of the speakers. It hit me in my lower-brain stem and I knew I wanted more rock and roll… nay, I knew I needed more rock and roll. It was that moment I knew I was bonded with this artist. Sadly, he came to KC in February ’80 and played Kemper Arena. They say more people slept out in line for tickets than had seen him on the Darkness tour but how would they measure that?The Kansas City Star described it as “the concert of the year” and again… it was only February. My dear friend Brewster had also secretly gotten into Springsteen and assuming I wouldn’t like him, after buying two tickets… took someone else. After all these years… yes, I have forgiven him… I haven’t forgotten… some wounds don’t heal completely. 

Even though I was a newly minted Springsteen fan, I didn’t go crashing through his back catalog. I’d heard “Born To Run,” “Jungleland,” and “Rosalita” – those were about the only older tracks they played in KC – but I didn’t even know what albums to look for. I thought “Blinded By The Light” was a Manfred Mann tune. About a year after I bought The River a friend of mine and I met two older, senior girls in our Study Hall. Somehow these fetching young women ended up sitting with us and on the surface, seemed to enjoy our geeky-ness. They invited my friend and I to meet them at that year’s Senior Skip Day party. It was where all the seniors blew off school and someone had a keg of beer, insanity ensued. We weren’t seniors but oh yes, we were in. I remember drinking a beer and talking to one of these beautiful girls and it was going great, at least I think it was… when I heard over the speakers propped up on the back deck…”The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…” I was mesmerized…”Is this Springsteen?” Nothing happened with the girls and it may have been my utter distraction from hearing the masterpiece Born To Run for the first time. I was gobsmacked. I bought that record the next day. Who thought Springsteen could “cock block” me?

I’ve been a big Springsteen fan ever since. I’ve followed him from big, anthemic albums with the E-Street band to acoustic, introspective solo records to detours like Western Stars (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). I have live albums and official live bootlegs. I’ve seen him a number of times in concert. I’ve even gotten the Rock Chick slightly into him…she’ll never be counted amongst the converted but she does have a ‘Bruce’ playlist she likes to crank up. I was thrilled to hear during this awful year, that Springsteen had a brand new album coming out. God, how we need new music! I was even more thrilled to hear the E Street Band would be on the album. I figured the new LP, Letter To You, would probably come out around Christmas. Thankfully I was wrong. I was pumped to see that the first single dropped last Friday with the album coming October 23rd.

I have to admit to you, and this will be no surprise, I really like “Letter To You.” The E Street Band is such a sympathetic medium for Springsteen to bring his songs to life. The song finds Springsteen looking back and writing a letter to his first band, the Castiles. Living in isolation, who doesn’t welcome a letter or an email from an old friend. After all these years, the sound of Bruce and the E Street band still gives me chills. It’s like an unexpected call from someone you’d like hear from but haven’t. It’s an upbeat track but I might call it mid tempo. Springsteen’s vocal is particularly inspired. The entire album was recorded live in the studio over five days, supposedly without any overdubs. This is their classic sound, dripping with earnestness and strength. When the band kicks in during the early part of the song, goose bumps, baby. It only lacks a sax solo from the Big Man’s nephew, Jake Clemons. The song is catchy and it sticks with me. It’s not a big anthemic thing like “Born To Run” or “Dancing In the Dark” but it will seep into your brain. 

I reflected on what this might mean for the new album. As I did I found my mind wandering back to 1980 and “Hungry Heart.” Eventually I found myself mulling over every Springsteen first single since The River in an effort to predict what the new LP might be like. I thought I’d share my thoughts on this music travelogue through those singles and my experiences with them… what it means for the new album – probably nothing but it was a fun thing to keep me occupied in mind-numbing times…I skipped the Pete Seeger thing because I despise Pete Seeger and struggle to even acknowledge that Bruce recorded that thing. 

  • The River, “Hungry Heart” – One of Bruce’s signature songs. It was very pop oriented but it heralded one of his greatest albums ever. It’s still a fun sing-a-long at concerts if you’re into that sort of thing. 
  • Nebraska, “Atlantic City” – I was home for Christmas break during my very awful freshman year of college. I was walking past the record store when I spotted a display with Nebraska albums stacked up to the ceiling. I left my then girlfriend standing there and went lunging into the store. I didn’t even know Springsteen had a new album out. I bought it and went home immediately. I was stunned at the difference between the sound of this dour album compared to The River. It’s one of the most grim listens ever (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). Even the video for “Atlantic City,” which does not feature Bruce is grainy and black and white. No sunshine to be found here… However, the single, “Atlantic City” will always be one of my favorite Bruce tracks. The Band did a nice little cover of it as well. 
  • Born In The U.S.A., “Dancing In the Dark” – The song that made Springsteen a superstar. I can still remember how starved, after the grim Nebraska, we all were for a new rock album from Bruce. We were all so thrilled that we might get to see an actual concert vs listening to bootlegs. I remember partying all night and sitting  up at dawn just to see the video. 
  • Tunnel of Love, “Brilliant Disguise” – By this time I was living in Ft Smith, Arkansas. I can remember the first time I heard this track, driving into the office on a cold, winter morning. I knew he’d gone back to the more introspective Nebraska style. This album featured more instrumentation and remains a favorite of mine. One of his greatest songs. 
  • Human Touch/Lucky Town, “Human Touch”/”Better Days” – Two Springsteen albums released on the same day. We’d been waiting for what seemed like forever. He’d disbanded the E Street Band and we didn’t know what to expect. “Human Touch,” at six and a half minutes is a big epic track. It’s much maligned but I still like it. “Better Days” is grittier, more immediate. It remains a favorite from a rather discounted period of Bruce’s career. 
  • The Ghost of Tom Joad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Another from Springsteen’s grim solo projects. This is my least favorite Springsteen album but the title track remains one of my favorites of his. Rage Against the Machine have redone this track as well. It’s a perfect song even today. 
  • The Rising, “The Rising” – The title track from the 911-centric album that saw the return of the E Street Band. I got tears in my eyes the first time I heard this epic title track. It ranks up there with “This Land Is Your Land” as a populist anthem. This song and the album it came from are American treasures. 
  • Devils And Dust, “Devils And Dust” – I’ve noticed that Springsteen likes to release the title track as the first single of most of his albums. Good marketing if you think about it. This album is ripped from the headlines. It sounds like an update from the front lines. One of Springsteen’s best solo tracks and albums. 
  • Magic, “Radio Nowhere” – One of the more rocking first singles of Springsteen’s career. I really liked Magic but I think many critics were divided on it. It’s a great, late-period E Street album. And who could argue with the theme on this song of radio slowly dying (Playlist: Memories of and A Requiem For Rock And Roll Radio). 
  • Working On A Dream, “Working On A Dream” – Another title track! This song has an irresistible melody. It’s as catchy as the old Motown singles. While the album itself was uneven, this single ranks amongst Bruce’s best. 
  • Wrecking Ball, “We Take Care of Our Own” – Another great rocking song with a spectacular message. Springsteen is the quintessential American artist. I remember he played this song on the Grammys. That night I had an old friend who I’ll call, “The Bat Cat” who had dropped by with his family. His daughter wanted to watch the Grammys. When Springsteen came on, Bat Cat paused and said, “Hey, I like that, it sounds like Darkness. Indeed it does. Classic Springsteen. 
  • High Hopes, “High Hopes” – The only cover song Springsteen has released as a single. He’d done it once before on an EP but I like this version best. High Hopes was a reimagining of songs Springsteen had previously written for earlier projects. I think critics discounted it for that reason but there are great songs on this album and I include the title track in that number. 
  • Western Stars, “Hello Sunshine” – The rare ballad as a first single. It was a true harbinger of what the album was like. This beautiful song quickly became one of my all time favorites (LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?). 

What does this tell us about the new Bruce album? “Letter To You” is another title track as first single for Bruce, but other than that, we’ll just have to anxiously await late October. 

Be safe out there!