“Is it a letter to your younger self?” I ask. “Is it to your children? Your wife? Your fans? To me?” Springsteen chuckles at the question: “It’s to you! It’s a letter to you! Whoever is listening. And, yeah, it is a summing up of what I’ve tried to do over the course of my 45, 50 years now, working.”— Bruce Springsteen, interviewed by the American Association of Retired Persons magazine
Scoff if you will at the idea of Bruce Springsteen talking to AARP – but he is 71 now. And as I get closer to 60 than to 50, I’ve started to resonate, ever so gradually, with the ideas of summing up and finishing strong. Between my childhood love of the Beatles and my late adolescent discovery of prog rock, Born to Run was an early personal milestone: an album with operatic musical ambition, a formidable grasp of rock history, and a yearning to explore the ins and outs of freedom and community, their costs and their consolations. (It’s also the first album I remember wanting after I read about it, in Newsweek’s infamous cover story; thinking about it, that might be when my itch to write about music started.)
As Springsteen’s career flared, climbed, peaked, then settled into the after-life of a legacy rock star, he’s never really stopped exploring those core concerns, whether his immediate subject matter was escape, desperation, love, abandonment, friendship, loss, grief or jubilation. The good news is that Letter to You dives into all this and more, remembering friends now dead, reviving songs once abandoned, and — the best part — rocking out with a rejuvenated E Street Band.
The death of lifelong friend George Theiss left Springsteen as the last living member of his first band, The Castiles. That and the gift of an acoustic guitar from a fan inspired a weeklong burst of writing, followed by five days of live-on-the studio-floor recording. These new songs are urgent, forward looking yet haunted by the past; but they also revel in gratitude for the moment and for the memories of those no longer around. The performances range from hushed to full-out, crossing the boundaries of folk, country, blues, the British Invasion and more; a mix of old and new bandmates are at the ready with guitars that chime and growl, churchy keyboard work ranging from Gothic to gospel, rhythm section grooves spanning the subtle and the bombastic, and much, much more.
The E Streeters are in full flight throughout, no matter the dynamic and the mood, smoothly gliding behind Springsteen on the folky opener “One Minute You’re Here” and the R&B-inflected love song “The Power of Prayer,” then soaring in a magnificent meld of The Byrds’ jangle and the Band’s grit on the cowboy gallop “Burning Train” and the transcendent rocker “Ghosts.” The early Springsteen songs “Janey Needs A Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” show that the man’s surreal wordplay earned his early “new Dylan” hype, and the band backs him with full-on psychedelic blues rock, the “wild mercury sound” the actual Dylan talked about back in his heyday.
And through all of this, Springsteen — looking back on a world-conquering career, 30 years of marriage, the raising of three now-grown children, and looking toward what comes next — grounds himself where he always has: on the power of music to connect with others and tell their stories back to them, with each side of the conversation reflecting the other . . .
Rock of ages lift me somehow / Somewhere high and hard and loud / Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd / I’m the last man standing now“Last Man Standing”
. . . on music’s vast potential to create, support and sustain community, even if it’s a community of lost souls, brought together for one night only . . .
Here the bitter and the bored / Wake in search of the lost chord / That’ll band us together as long as there’s stars / Here in the house of a thousand guitars“House of A Thousand Guitars”
. . . on rich, unsparing empathy for the faces in the crowd, even the ones who’ve made bad bets, or trusted the wrong people.
They come for the smile, the firm handshake / They come for the raw chance of a fair shake / Some come to make damn sure, my friend / This mean season’s got nothing to do with them / They come ’cause they can’t stand the pain / Of another long hot day of no rain / ‘Cause they don’t care or understand / What it really takes for the sky to open up the land“Rainmaker”
But there’s also something fresh here, and it’s what lifts Letter to You above standard-issue Bruce. In both “Ghosts” and the album’s moving finale, Springsteen sings to the ones who’ve died while pondering his own horizon, facing the homestretch of his life with a hope that disavows denial or facile optimism. (Possibly one rooted in his Catholic background?) It’s a hope that points toward life after death, but also asserts that the dead still live on, here and now, in the memories of those they loved:
I’ll see you in my dreams / When all our summers have come to an end / I’ll see you in my dreams / We’ll meet and live and laugh again / I’ll see you in my dreams / Up around the riverbend / For death is not the end / I’ll see you in my dreams“I’ll See You in My Dreams”
And while the album was done and dusted before coronavirus reshaped the landscape, there’s another promise implicit in it all:
“All I can tell you is, when this experience is over, I am going to throw the wildest party you’ve ever seen. And you, my friends, are all invited.”Bruce talking to the AARP
Consider Letter to You Bruce Springsteen’s reminder to save the date for that party, as well as one of his finest efforts — in my mind, ranking up there with Born to Run, Tunnel of Love, The Rising and Working On A Dream. When the man has something big to write about, he can cut straight to your heart, even from a secluded home studio in deepest New Jersey, and he’s done it again here. With the E Street Band on fire behind him, Letter to You could be the basis of a tour to top them all for Springsteen; but even if that never comes to pass, this album is something special, a hard-rocking reminder that yes, our days on this earth are numbered — but also that love is strong as death.
(This review is dedicated to the memory of my parents Carl & Carol Krueger, who bought me Born to Run for my 14th birthday.)
— Rick Krueger