How galling it must be for Bruce Springsteen not to be on the road with the E Street Band right now, playing the songs from this new album which, unlike his last three, is crammed with the emotional ebb and rip-roaring flow he unleashes on stage. High Hopes (2014) was a collection of unreleased material he’d been sitting on; Springsteen On Broadway (2018) was a faithful record of his solo performances, much of it recitations from his Born To Run book, at a New York Theatre that year; and Western Stars (2019) was another of his style switches, this time into the smooth western pop area favoured by singers like by Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich.
Letter To You is nothing like any of those. It’s a return to home territory, the glory days of his mid-seventies to mid-eighties style of music, with the E Street Band back in harness, delighted to be on board, churning out those major chords to songs with big words and big choruses that invite singalongs as only this man can. It was recorded at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey in less than a week, or so I’ve read, and that alone makes it crackle.
As other reviewers have noted, there’s a big black train, an edge of town and a river looming before we’ve even reached the end of the first track. ‘One Minute You’re Gone’ actually opens a bit like those gentle, minimalist songs on Nebraska, a softly strummed acoustic guitar the only backdrop until a bass drum and synth wash fill out the sound before the song gently fades. A chiming Telecaster riff brings in the title track, wherein – perhaps predictably – ‘Letter To You’ is rhymed with ‘true’ and ‘morning sky of blue’. After a fine, twangy solo the band step back for Bruce to sing the final verse over a hi-hat, emphasising the struggle that went into the letter. Opposite the lyrics in the accompanying booklet is a picture of The Castiles, Bruce’s first band, on stage at the Ferndock Surf Shop, with surfboards piled up behind them. Its significance is revealed later.
‘Burnin’ Train’ is a downhill ride, a rocker in the same vein as ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, all crashing chords with Max Weinberg’s snare like a metronome until, as usual, it accelerates into double time as the verse launches into the chorus. It’s a perfect stage number, as is ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’ which is slower but no less powerful. Urged in 1985 not to lose heart, Janey is now advised to hitch her wagon to a man ‘who knows her style’, and the man in question has had this powerful song, its tempo not unlike ‘Racing In The Street’, kicking around for a while.
‘Last Man Standing’ seems to have been the inspiration for this album. It refers in large part to George Theiss who with Bruce was the sole surviving member of The Castiles until his death in 2016 left their leader as the last of the gang. Like ‘No Surrender’, it’s a song about being in a band and the friendships that endure as a result. Structurally the song would not sound out on place on 1987’s Tunnel Of Love, at least until Roy Bittan’s piano enters the fray at the end of each verse. Meanwhile, Bruce recalls the gigs they played before, ‘You pack your guitar and have one last beer, with just the ringing in your ears.’ It’s a lovely tribute to an old friend at whose bedside Bruce held a vigil until the end.
‘The Power Of Prayer’ is less majestic, a slightly cheesy love song that references ‘This Magic Moment’ and Ben E. King, and ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’, somewhat similar, evokes memories of – you’ve guessed – playing in bands. In other hands this characteristic subject matter might seem hackneyed but somehow Bruce’s vocals and the E Street men punch out the music with sufficient conviction to erase these thoughts. After half a dozen plays I was singing along in my car to both these tracks, even the line in the latter that went ‘from the stadiums to small town bars’. Only later did I consider that it should have been the other way around but nothing much rhymes with ‘stadium’ while ‘small time bars’ and ‘a thousand guitars’ rhyme well-nigh perfectly.
It was to be expected that Springsteen would have little time for America’s current president though in the past voices have been raised about Bruce letting down his blue-collar fans by siding with the white liberal elite. Nevertheless, without naming him, ‘Rainmaker’ takes a fair aim at the man who, if the polls are to be believed, will fall from grace this coming week. As fierce as anything on the album, no one can be in any doubt about the Rainmaker’s identity. Who else says ‘white’s black and black’s white’ and ‘night’s day and day’s night’? And while we’re at it, there’s two lines in ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ – ‘The criminal clown has stolen the throne. He steals what he can never own’ – that seems like a tilt in the same direction.
‘If I Was A Priest’ dates back to Springsteen’s earliest efforts, and was among the songs performed for Columbia A&R chief John Hammond in his New York office during that audition on May 2, 1972. Like much of the material from this era it features religious imagery and is on the wordy side but the E Streeters take the song by the scruff of the neck and, with whistling Hammond to the fore, turn it into a beast. At 6.51 it’s the longest song on the album, and at the four-minute mark Bruce kills the band to deliver the killer lines before the band crash back in.
‘Ghosts’, another song about the joys of playing in a band, rocks along like the best tracks from The River, even tipping the hat to ‘Your old Fender Twin from Johnny’s Music Downtown’ and ‘your Les Paul’. The ghost of the title is clearly his late Castile pal, but any feeling of naff nostalgia is tempered by the sheer enjoyment, that ‘one, two, three, four’ rush of being up there playing, and maybe even ‘your sister’ is the one who called him home with his drums and guitars in ‘No Surender’.
The penultimate ‘Song For Orphans’ sees the tempo shift back to grind in a song as wordy as those early songs referred to earlier, while the closer, ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, rolls along to a folksy, simple melody, atypical of Springsteen. To avoid confusion I’ll mention that it’s not the song first heard in 1924 that Joe Brown sang at the end of the Albert Hall George Harrison tribute concert in 2002, but it offers the same sentiments and a suggestion of hope in this time of turmoil for America.
Indeed, if Letter To You carries a message at all, it’s that hope and dreams are around the corner and, meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia so long as it’s wrapped up in a Spector-like wall of sound with ringing guitars, tinkling piano, that trademark glockenspiel, a wailing sax and thumping bass and drums. Most importantly, it’s OK so long as there’s a heart-felt vocalist singing emotion-packed words like he really means it. I would expect no less from Bruce Springsteen.