Bruce Springsteen's 'Letter to You' one year later: Who is this album for?
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
You may recall that when Bruce Springsteen announced “Letter to You” last September, the response from E Street Nation was nothing short of joyous. Although there had been word of full-band sessions taking place pre-pandemic, nobody knew if they’d actually completed a whole album’s worth of material before we all masked up and locked down. But now, seemingly out of nowhere, we had officially been put on notice: A new Bruce Springsteen album featuring the E Street Band, just six weeks away! Be still our hearts.
And not just that, but the announcement promised the disc would be “fueled by the band's heart-stopping, house-rocking signature sound” -- that’s something we hadn’t heard since … “Wrecking Ball”? “Magic”? “Born in the USA”? Some might even argue we hadn’t really heard it since “The River” way back in 1980, because that’s something we Springsteen fans like to do -- argue.
But there wasn’t much argument when the album saw the light of day on Oct. 23 of last year. For the most part, this sounded like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. There was Roy Bittan’s rollicking piano, front and center! And it was dueling with spirited organ lines by Charlie Giordano, channeling Danny Federici! Plus Stevie’s echoing background vocals! Jake Clemons doing his late uncle proud on the sax! Garry Tallent's powerful bass lines holding the whole proceeding together! It was everything we could have asked for.
And yet …
After the shock of pleasant recognition wore off, I had to admit: I had some doubts. I found myself wondering if this was really an organic E Street sound, or was it the E Street Band 2020 doing what was basically a glorified imitation of the E Street Band 1980? Had Bruce erred in, for once, giving the audience what it thought it wanted?
Besides that, though, I couldn’t help but ask who this album was really for. For many of us, one of Bruce’s greatest strengths had always been his universality -- his genius, to quote Stevie from his memoir Unrequited Infatuations, in “telling people about their lives. Helping them understand their mostly f--d-up existence!” Even the songs about specific characters, like Joe Roberts or Miguel and Luis, somehow managed to put us into their shoes for those four or five minutes, and made us realize our shoes weren’t all that different.
At first blush, I didn’t hear that on “Letter to You.” Instead, the lyrics often seemed intensely personal: The title track was a touching missive to Springsteen’s audience, but unabashedly from his own perspective; “Last Man Standing” told of “faded pictures in an old scrapbook” that felt unique to Bruce’s individual Route 9 garage band experience; “House of a Thousand Guitars” expertly captured how it must feel for a band to “light up the house,” but didn’t seem to have much to say to those of us who’d never picked up a guitar.
And yet …
There’s a reason why you should live with an album for a while before passing judgment on it (a practice we don’t seem to really do anymore, with anything). Even if the album didn’t “speak” to me right out of the gate, it had a warmth and a sonic appeal that made me want to keep listening. And as I listened, Bruce’s slightly-more-craggy-than-usual vocals wormed their way into my brain and heart, bringing me into those union halls and small-town bars in a way that made me feel like they were places I knew.
THE BAND SONGS
I think “Last Man Standing,” the first track on the album to deal explicitly with band life, initially gave me pause because it seemed so specific: Yes, it was about young bands earning their stripes at function halls and dive bars, but it also felt like a page out of Springsteen’s autobiography; at the end of the day it’s less a song about performing than it is about The Castiles performing -- and Bruce’s status as the band’s last surviving member.
With its lyrics lacking a universal hook, it’s a song that relies on other elements to be successful, and fortunately it’s got them in spades: When Roy’s piano and Max Weinberg’s distinctive drumming kick in after the first verse, it's like they’re sweeping you up in Bruce’s memories, and Jake’s sax solo is perfectly placed at the track’s mid-point, tying together the melancholy and nostalgia that Bruce has intertwined throughout.
“House of a Thousand Guitars,” unfortunately, mostly just feels like more of the same, especially musically. And while its lyrics get away from the autobiography of “Last Man,” at the end of the day they’re a little too generic (“we'll go where the music never ends”) to be provocative, their nod to the churches and jails of “Jungleland” notwithstanding.
More successful, I think, is “Ghosts,” which has the benefit of featuring as dynamic a build as any E Street Band track (certainly in this century), and whose lyrics encompass the perfect mix of musical reminiscence -- “Count the band in, then kick into overdrive / By the end of the set we leave no one alive” -- with a sense of how important it is to preserve the memory of those lost. We don’t have to have turned an amp up to 11 to relate to the notion of wanting support from someone who’s no longer there: “I need, need you by my side, your love and I'm alive.”
“Ghosts” grabbed me from first listen -- it’s the album’s clear standout -- but all of the songs about making music have risen in my estimation over the last year, despite my never having played a single note. I think that’s partially because, in many ways, it feels like we live these experiences with Bruce every time he takes to the stage. But beyond that, even if we have to work a little harder to relate than with some past Springsteen songs, once you give them a chance they pull you along with a driving sense of hard-earned nostalgia that we all have about something.
THE OLD SONGS
The album’s track list goes way beyond Bruce’s working-musician memory lane, though, most interestingly when it comes to three songs written more than 40 years ago that have been much bootlegged but never released -- to say nothing of recorded with all the power of the E Street Band behind them.
I’ll say it right off the bat: Trying to figure out what these songs are about, besides an opportunity for young Bruce to stretch his mid-’60s-Dylan allegorical storytelling muscles, is a fool’s errand. Take “Janey Needs a Shooter,” the first of the three to pop up on the record: It’s probably the most musically compelling -- Bittan and Giordano have a field day working the keys -- while simultaneously being the creepiest lyrically, populated by a trio of unsavory suitors who include an ancient gynecologist and an icy priest, plus a cop who has a tendency to wail on his siren whenever he knows Bruce’s “shooter” is holed up in Janey’s house. Sadly, though, both the title character and the narrator remain at best elusive and at worst downright non-existent -- this one is all about the rogue’s gallery.
“If I Was the Priest,” meanwhile, focuses more squarely on the protagonist and his efforts to man up among the cast of an imagined western-movie sideshow, with two of Bruce’s favorite characters, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, thrown in for good measure: “It's about time I played the man, took a stand where I belong,” he sings, reminiscent of the narrator of “Badlands” we’d meet a few years later. And “Song for Orphans” is a rhyming-dictionary bonanza about one man’s assuming of his own responsibilities -- “the confederacy's in my name now” -- or maybe about hermits and cat-men? I’m not sure even Bruce knows.
At first I took these to be just the latest example of Springsteen’s efforts to record official versions of the stragglers from among his outtakes and live-only songs, something he’s done in recent years with songs like “The Wall” and “American Skin.” But I’ve come to realize they’re more than that -- the minute you hear the massive organ blast that kicks off “Janey,” you know that Bruce’s decades-old lyrics aren’t really the point. These songs are an E Street master class, all about mood, momentum and wall-of-sound radiance, showing off Bruce’s guitar and harmonica chops and the rest of the band’s well-oiled synergy. Recording these must have been a joy, and it’s contagious.
THE MORTALITY SONGS, AND THE REST
There are a few instances where the album goes off on a tangent, but the songs I originally considered filler I’ve since come to appreciate as having landed in mostly successful territory: “Burnin’ Train” is both Springsteen’s rockingest guitar track in years and the latest example of his endless affinity for and expertise with train allegories, in this case the blazing conveyance standing in for his lover’s, er, Pink Cadillac. “Rainmaker,” meanwhile, references the dangers of blindly following leaders so prophetically it’s amazing it was written pre-Trump: “Brother patriot come forth and lay it down, your blood brother for king and crown,” Springsteen sings at one point, in a line that seemed to presage the events of Jan. 6.
But I’ve come to realize the album’s crowning achievement are, not surprisingly, the songs that most manage to be universal and personal at the same time; I’d count among these “Letter to You,” with its sense of looking back from the final act, and “Ghosts,” with its titular spirits portending our inevitable grappling with loss. But it’s the albums bookends -- “One Minute You’re Here” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams” -- that do the bulk of the heavy lifting on the mortality front, which is why they’re the ones that tend to remain with you longest after the record fades out.
“One Minute” at first feels like a quiet if not dour start to the proceedings, and I admit I sort of wrote it off as such on first listen. But listen enough times, as Bruce ticks off familiar signposts from throughout his career -- big black train, the carnival midway, muddy banks, the edge of town -- and you eventually feel his drawly folk croon drawing you into the feeling of years tumbling like dominoes, and the ephemeral nature of everything we’ve come to take for granted. Meanwhile the quiet accompaniment feels almost like a lullaby, appropriate for a song that references laying your body down where the “stars vanish in a sky as black as stone.”
It’s “Dreams,” though, that provides the closure we need at the close of “Letter to You.” Unlike “One Minute You’re Here,” it has a sense of rollicking joy, from Bruce’s hopeful guitar licks, to Patti Scialfa’s luscious counterpoint to his vocals, to Max’s brawny percussion. And while some of the lyrics may be almost too on-the-nose -- “death is not the end,” we get it -- that’s forgivable when you consider how well it ties together the nostalgia, the longing, and both the specific memories and the general musings of the prior 11 tracks.
Many months of listening to this track and the album as a whole have also made me appreciate more what the E Street Band, recorded live, together, brought to these proceedings -- yes, they were clearly trying for an E Street “sound,” but if you listen you can also hear shades of “Lucky Town,” “Western Stars” and “Devils & Dust” hiding in the corners of the tracks. Far from an imitation, Springsteen with the E Street Band made “Letter to You” more of a culmination -- of years of friendship, camaraderie, gains and losses, and yes, of lighting up the house.
You don’t have to have been in a band to appreciate that, and you don’t have to be staring down the light of the oncoming train to appreciate Bruce Springsteen’s ability to capture the importance of life’s fleeting joys. One year later, it’s clear that “Letter to You” did just that, and that's why it's for all of us. Here’s to many more.
For Peter Chianca's take on "Springsteen's Greatest Albums," check out his book "Glory Days" at Amazon.com.