Album: Letter to You
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Released: October 23rd, 2020
Highlights: Janey Needs a Shooter, If I Was the Priest, Ghosts, Song for Orphans
There is an old cliche in the world of music reviews that goes as follows: an artist that has been around for a relative while releases a new batch of tracks, a tide of hype swells to surround the record, and both critics as well as fans go on to proclaim that the album is the best one the public figure in question has put out since an item in their catalog that is generally perceived as a classic. It is a sequence of events so likely to play out that one can bet money without fear of losing any of it that, for instance, all albums published by The Rolling Stones since the 1980s have been dubbed by someone somewhere as their finest hour since “Some Girls” and every fresh work by The Strokes following their debut, “Is This It”, has eventually been proclaimed to be their best since that 2001 classic.
Given the ridiculousness that is often attached to such claims, it would be wise to avoid them; however, not making some comments of the sort about Bruce Springsteen’s “Letter to You” is nigh impossible because, quite simply, the material deserves it. Through his lengthy and productive career, Springsteen, even during the many years that have passed since his peak, never really fell asleep at the wheel. Save from 1992’s “Human Touch” and 2009’s “Working on a Dream”, there are no blatant duds in his catalog. But following 2019’s already highly inspired “Western Stars”, “Letter to You” comes off as a significant step-up in terms of quality when compared to the average Bruce record of the past thirty years.
As such, “Letter to You” is his most consistent record since “Magic”, from 2007; and, more significantly, it puts forth quite a claim for the title of being the best album Springsteen has created since the work that is often defined as the tail-end of his classic run: 1987’s “Tunnel of Love”. It is a crown for which there is good competition, but “Letter to You” seems to outmaneuver them with style: it does not feel as bloated as the excellent “The Rising”; its highs are more pronounced than those of “Magic”; and although not as stylistically bold as “Western Stars”, it edges that one out on the strength of better pacing.
The first big piece of news coming from “Letter to You” is the return of the mythical E Street Band. It is worth noting, though, that the group was not away for such a long time, as “Western Stars” is the sole Bruce Springsteen album released after the turn of the century not to have his usual gang aboard. The presence of the E Street Band emerges like being deserving of fanfare, though, due to how alive they sound here. To put it in simple (and heavily cliched) terms, it has been a whopping forty years – dating back, therefore, to “The River” – since the group was captured in such a pure and true state. Deep into success and fame, they retain the aura of playing like a fine-tuned bar band that tackles small venues; an ensemble that does not play for the paycheck, but for free drinks, for the communal experience that is inherent to tightly packed shows, and for the pleasure of being in a band beside a large cast of friends. And in “Letter to You”, be it through arrangements or production, the feeling of the music they produce is heavily akin to what they did in the 1970s.
The fact the E Street Band is, better than in recent recorded history, cooking that hard-to-replicate sound that defines heartland rock is probably greatly helped by the quality of the tunes Springsteen has brought to the table. Opening with the quiet folk acoustic picking of “One Minute You’re Here”, in which the singer ponders about the frail brevity of life whilst seeing death like a train coming from the horizon, “Letter to You” has been labeled as an album concerned with the passage of time and mortality; and Bruce himself has stated much of the material here was inspired by those who were close to him, but are now gone, including E Street Band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, as well as George Theiss, the leader of his first group.
And indeed, many are the songs here closely tied to those matters. “Last Man Standing”, guided by a signature riff that combines guitars and keyboards, can be interpreted as Springsteen looking at himself like one of the final members of his generation that is still present either in this world itself or up on stages around the globe. The anthemic “Ghosts” has the singer confronting memories of those who have passed. And closer “I’ll See You in my Dreams”, one sweet rocking ballad, captures him clinging to the hope of seeing his deceased friends while sleeping. But in a touch of thematic beauty, even tracks that are not directly centered around these topics fit right in, whether it is in lyrical passages that nod to nostalgia as well as the passage of time, or in songs that gain a unique lean in meaning thanks to the record’s context, such as the title track, which could be seen as being about writing a letter to a friend, but that surrounded by so many thoughts on death reads like a testament that encompasses accumulated wisdom and tries to pass it to newer generations.
That effect is most powerfully noted in the trio of “Janey Needs a Shooter”, “If I Was the Priest”, and “Song for Orphans”. Written around the time Springsteen was working on his first album, the fact their quality stands out within such a strong set of tracks as the one present in “Letter to You” speaks volumes about the sharpness of his pen back in those days. In addition, they are extra appealing for two reasons. Firstly, because even though their lyrics have no references to death, they end up seamlessly merging into the work as a whole thanks to how their date of composition brings nostalgic feelings. Secondly, they are alluring due to how they boast one unique match: in words, they exhibit the long-winded, psychedelic, and Dylanesque parade of characters that defined the tunes Springsteen wrote for his first two albums; in music, though, they carry the E Street Band classic sound, a recipe that Bruce had yet to develop back in the era when he was writing like a beat poet. As such, their fabric, other than carrying excellent melodic work, also contains an interesting match of past and present.
There are accusations that can be directed towards “Letter to You”. The fact it has a sound so characteristic of Bruce Springsteen at his peak causes the moments when his sharp writing slips a little bit to threaten to crash into parody, an accident that arguably materializes in the fast-paced “Burnin’ Train” and that almost comes to be in “House of a Thousand Guitars”. In that sense, it would have been better for the record if it featured a couple of refreshing stylistic turns, something that is only seen here in “Rainmaker”, an excellent tune that reads like a metaphoric attack on the Donald Trump administration (taking a very insightful look into the factors that led to his election) and a song that trades quiet verses for choruses that explode into orchestral thunder. Nevertheless, limitations in tone and style do not dent “Letter to You” too much, for – at the end of the day – Springsteen has, at age 71, turned in a late-career gem: an album that despite showcasing maturity and old age, still features the jovial, energetic, optimistic, and anthemic traits of his work with the E Street Band. It sounds true, it hits hard, and to many it will rank as the best Bruce Springsteen record since the most recent classic of their choice. It is cliched, but it is quite appropriate.