Letter to You – Bruce Springsteen. Album Review

I don’t do many music reviews on this site, but I’ve written before about the influence Bruce Springsteen has had on me. From first hearing him and then listening non-stop throughout paper round routes around my village as a 14 year old, through to getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning as a 51 year old to hear his new release.

That would be two hours ago, and having listened to the album twice now, here are my thoughts…

Letter to You is Springsteen’s 20th album, and the first E Street album since High Hopes, the first recorded live since Born in the USA, consists of nine newly written songs with three known-to-fans but previously unreleased officially songs. The album was recorded in something like five days, and very much played ‘live’. The title is pretty clear – the you the letter is being written for is the fan. Particularly the long term Springsteen fan: the album is almost like a ‘best of’ of Springsteen’s styles. Mixing in themes and sounds from across his career in one seamless album. Will it get him a ton of new fans? Probably not. There are fun moments and spots for the hardcore fan, but it’s accessible to the less fanatical as well.

There’s a lot of rumination of the past, while never sounding like a final farewell. It’s the most ‘complete’ album since The Rising, or Magic, at least.

Springsteen seems to call in the E Street Band when he feels it’s right or needed. Whether it’s for the involvement in the post 9/11 of The Rising or to tour, and one might wonder the timing of this album – is it for personal reasons: Springsteen has been very open about his personal mental health in recent years, or maybe as the calling for the political landscape he’s been very vocal about. But don’t think this is an overtly political album: it’s nostalgic in the best possible way, and shows there is nothing diminished in Springsteen’s writing, or his willingness to dip into his back catalogue.

If anyone’s interested here’s my take on the album track by track – it may go on a bit, and it’s all based on two listens to the album ,but here are my initial thoughts.

One Minute You’re Here

Anyone expecting a bombastic opening or the pre-touted Letter to You will instead find a slow picked guitar start. With Bittan’s piano slowly creeping in, joined bit by bit into a ruminative piece that could have come from Tunnel of Love.

Letter to You

Then we’re off with the title track which has been out for a few weeks and it’s classic E Street stuff. Chugging drum and bass, Whirling organs, and driving drums and an understated low guitar solo.

The fact that the song pushes forward with a refrain of ‘in my letter to you’ that doesn’t scan particularly well is testament to the push of the song.

Burnin Train

Another fast track, lots of high hat drum, and a nice high end guitar solo – who’s playing it? Bruce? Nils? Steve Van Zandt? One of the great things about the E Street Band is when you have that much talent together, it all just flows.  Whoever is playing, it’s a smart, straightforward one, answered with an alternative a verse later. This is a band having fun – the nature of the ‘get together in the studio and just play it as close to live as we can’ is really coming out.

Janey Needs a Shooter

Finally getting a release after a few alt versions over the years – the Warren Zevon influence from Jeannie Needs A Shooter where verses were written by Zevon and chorus by Springsteen comes through and by the end the repeated refrain is reminiscent of Darkness on the Edge of Town tracks.

Last Man Standing

A good solid ‘Springsteen’ song – Flock of angels lift me somehow/ Somewhere high and hard and loud/ Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd/ I’m the last man standing now and for the first real time we get the classic ‘Clarence’ sound sax coming in after the first chorus with Jake Clemons playing a nice, short but effective blast before coming back in towards the song’s end to finish things off.

The Power of Prayer

Classic Roy Bittan opening, building into a classic E Street track. By the time the sax really starts coming in at the end, you could be back at any one of a Bruce gig over the years.

House of a Thousand Guitars

Not to be confused with the Willie Nile track of the same name, this starts over piano – more of a plaintive call to come, before the band kicks in. Less guitar featured than might be expected from the title but one likely to feature strongly in stadiums if/ when the band gets to tour again.

Rainmaker

Did I say the album wasn’t political? Well, that’s not entirely true – perhaps better to say that the music takes you along with it as it lays out its message – but that’s always been the way. Rainmaker a little faith for hire/ Rainmaker the house is on fire/ Rainmaker take everything you have/ Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad/ They’ll hire a rainmaker

That wouldn’t be Bruce commenting on anyone in particular now, would it? Nah, surely not…

 

If I was the Priest

is a lightly strummed solo start, with light piano accompaniment s was an early demo, and although the band now sounds very different from those early days, it’s Greetings from Asbury origins still peak through in the lyrics and some of the musical refrains, not to mention aspirations of epic (At 6:50 it’s not the longest Springsteen track, but it’s a song of many parts – and if the young Springsteen of then was looking for it, the Springsteen forty plus years on has the complete confidence and ability to pull it off. This one is really quite special.

Ghosts

is probably the most overt call back to band members and friends past. Another early release Springsteen himself has said Ghosts’ is about the beauty and joy of being in a band and the pain of losing one another to illness and time,” and of course there’s been that over the last decade through the loss of Clemons, Danny Federici, and more.

Songs for Orphans

reminded me of Dylan – and not just from the harmonica opening – the refrain seemed vaguely reminiscent of Shelter from the Storm. Maybe it’s just me; or maybe the fact that this is another long buried one (so long buried, it pre-dates Shelter’s release…I know that, so maybe the slightly purple lyrics are more in line with The Band. There is a touch of The Weight in the words. And I’m babbling a bit now: this is just the second listen for me…

I’ll See You In My Dreams

a perfect book ending to the album. Still considering mortality, but in a light, bright and almost optimistic manner.

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