Bruce Springsteen’s acclaimed 18 months at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway felt like an overwhelming career summation, and may even have had the sense of an ending. This, however, is not at all how this man operates. Retirement is not on the agenda. Following hot on the heels from the compelling artistic tributary of Western Stars, Letter To You once again reunites Springsteen with the E Street Band.
Not only is this the first set of (mostly) new material written specifically with the band in mind for over a decade, it is also the first album since perhaps Born In The USA where a truly collaborative spirit has fuelled the creative process. While Springsteen painstakingly worked on Western Stars over a number of years, Letter To You was recorded largely live at Springsteen’s Stone Hill studios in only five days. As a result, it has an urgency, immediacy and intimacy sometimes missing from Springsteen’s later output. Rather than striving for something that sounds ‘modern’, Springsteen and producer Ron Aniello have successfully bottled the essence of this version of the E Street Band. The contributions of the individual musicians cut through clearly (even the still criminally underused Nils Lofgren and right down to Steve Van Zandt’s unrestrained backing vocals), and their camaraderie and bond defines this vigorous and energising music.
It opens with surprising delicacy, a quietly picked acoustic guitar and a sombre, wistful vocal starkly pondering the fleeting nature of time. Gradually, subtle hints of E Street texture are added – synth pads that hark back to Born In The USA and Tunnel Of Love, soft piano flourishes and a glockenspiel. This is One Minute You’re Here and, true to Springsteen’s occasional tendency to rely on platitudes in his late period lyrics, it’s not hard to see where it is going. It is also the first sign that Letter To You will continue the reflective tone that ran through his revisiting of The River on tour and which also defined Springsteen On Broadway. With its aching melody, One Minute You’re Here is concise and spare but also entrancing and poignant. When coupled with the closing track I’ll See You In My Dreams, it provides one half of a set of bookends accepting the finite nature of life, and exploring how time somehow moves both slowly and falls away too rapidly.
The title track then ushers in the band in full flight. Max Weinberg sounds particularly liberated, deploying the kind of explosive and florid drum fills that are too often eschewed in the studio. Also notable are the full, chiming presence of Roy Bittan’s piano (which had, on The Rising and Magic, often been mixed back in favour of a wall of guitars) and the warm textural support of Charlie Giordano’s organ, paying effective homage to the late, great Danny Federici. Despite a cumbersome opening lyric, the song itself is an affecting encapsulation of both the creative drive and the emotional burden that fuel the songwriting process. Springsteen’s own lead guitar parts (presumably one of the few examples of overdubbing) subtly incorporate some of the torch and twang of Western Stars into the E Street sound.
One of the more curious moves on Letter To You is the decision to revisit three much older, previously unreleased songs from the Springsteen catalogue dating back to the early 1970s. These suit the sonic tone of the album, particularly given the nature of the E Street Band’s commanding performances of them. While Janey Needs A Shooter is probably most associated with its 1978 demo (to which this version is more or less faithful), it was first recorded solo with piano in 1973. Song For Orphans and If I Was The Priest date back to Springsteen’s early solo demos and his audition for John Hammond at Columbia. While the musical fit is clear, the tumbling torrent of verbiage in these songs, both dense and allusive, creates a striking contrast with his now mostly pared back approach to lyrics and melody.
Song For Orphans and If I Was The Priest both exhibit the influence of Bob Dylan – something that has been much discussed in relation to the alliterative wordplay of his early work, but perhaps less remarked upon in relation to the dynamic of the E Street Band. On Orphans, the band channel Dylan’s mid-’60s ‘wild mercury sound’, while Priest perhaps seems to hint more at The Band. While they might initially feel like they come from another time, something in these songs speaks to the political and social turbulence of the past four years. These three songs may be the greatest recordings of the reunion era of the E Street Band and, while Springsteen’s older voice does strain over the thrilling musical storm, there is something powerful and stirring in his more fragile delivery (it is particularly effective on the coda of Janey Needs A Shooter). When compared with the more transparent vocal decline of Dylan (however much one might relish the acerbic quality of his ravaged delivery) and Elvis Costello, Springsteen’s voice has held up well. In addition to this, his earnestness in always pushing beyond the limit has always been a factor in the enduring prowess of his live shows.
The thematic core of the album comes with three tracks placed together in its centre. Last Man Standing revisits The Castiles, Springsteen’s first band as a teenager, and the clubs in which they used to play. The sad death of George Theiss in 2018 left Springsteen as the last remaining Castile (“You count the names of the missing as you count off time”), and the song is appropriately both melancholy and stirring, with the kind of chiming melody Springsteen seems to be able to conjure with deft ease. It is also here that we first encounter a clear and reassuring contribution from Jake Clemons on the saxophone. Where Clarence would have bursted from the speakers as if he were exploding into the same room as the listener, the saxophone here, while played in an impressively similar style, is mixed to sound distant and slightly detached. Nevertheless, Jake Clemons’ contributions here are significant, and present him as a more integrated part of the current band.
The Power Of Prayer comes next, a nostalgic song again featuring Clemons but also dominated by Roy Bittan’s piano. It is very melodically close to Last Man Standing, as well as being similarly paced. The title of House Of A Thousand Guitars might lead listeners to expect a little more snap and crackle, rather than a song again defined more by Bittan’s piano. Instead, it has an opulence that befits its musing on the musical life as a form of collective worship. Another of the less satisfying tendencies of Springsteen’s later work is to repeat a single melodic motif ad infinitum, often regardless of whether his lyrics really fit the pattern. There is a sense that this song needs either a bridge, or a clearer delineation between the melodic material in the verses and choruses. A younger Springsteen would at least have added some development to some of the lines. It is not hard to see why these songs have been sequenced in this way for the purposes of the narrative, but Letter To You does lose some musical impact during this section.
This is something of a shame, given that the album has three breathtaking rock songs that could have provided more effective contrast had they been placed somewhere within the mid-section. Ghosts is again melodically repetitious, but it remains striking because of the triumphal euphoria of its chorus (‘I’m alive, and I’m coming home’). It may again be George Theiss that Springsteen is eulogising here (‘I hear the sound of your guitar/Comin’ in from the mystic far’), but the effect this time is more jubilant and celebratory, and it is not hard to imagine this song as a highlight of a stadium show, should that ever be possible again.
The feverish elan of Burnin’ Train is even more remarkable, its relentless four to the floor drum beat making it somewhat reminiscent of Protection, the Born In The USA-era song Springsteen gave to Donna Summer. Rainmaker is an older song, perhaps written during the Bush Presidency, but which ends up neatly castigating Donald Trump while also understanding the reasons for his victory (“Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, they’ll hire a rainmaker”). Along with “the criminal clown has stolen the throne” (a line from House Of A Thousand Guitars), this represents a subtle incorporation of Springsteen’s politics into Letter To You’s more uniquely personal story. Its sludgy, somewhat menacing stomp could have worked well on Wrecking Ball, providing an intriguing view of how that album might have sounded with a little less production clutter.
Letter To You concludes with I’ll See You In My Dreams, a beautiful, elegiac and well structured song that Springsteen sings with sincerity and depth. It concludes that “death is not the end”, and suggests that Springsteen indeed sees his fallen comrades in his own dreams. The song will also have powerful resonance for fans left wondering whether or not we will be able to gather together in the Church of E Street once again. Pandemic aside, Springsteen has been clear that this period of reflection is not a conclusion. He still has plans, and there is more existing music to come. For now, even at the points where it feels its musical ideas might have been further developed, Letter To You provides both a moving thematic adjunct to Springsteen On Broadway and a timely and welcome burst of the sheer euphoria that only the E Street Band can inject. It also, importantly, demonstrates the band’s unacknowledged flexibility. Perhaps Springsteen should be less concerned with writing specifically for them and just present them with whatever he has?