When the world first met him in the mid-’70s, Bruce Springsteen might have seemed like a throwback. He sang about first loves and teenage runaways; he dressed like a greaser and worshipped at the altar of jukeboxes and summer nights on the boardwalk. Many of his influences—Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector—were at least a decade past the peak of their cultural impact. A glowing early review by Jon Landau claiming to have witnessed “rock and roll future” at a Springsteen concert helped define his mythology, but the opening words of the next sentence were just as crucial: “On a night when I needed to feel young….”
Springsteen has spent much of his career wrestling with this penchant for nostalgia. (“I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it—but I probably will,” he sang in “Glory Days,” 36 years ago.) Some artists evolve through reinvention and others through refinement, but Springsteen has often compared the span of his career to a long conversation: He can revisit certain themes, even repeat himself, but the idea is to keep it moving. Springsteen turned 71 last month, and his 20th studio album, Letter to You, indulges in his past like never before. Following the autobiographical thread of his memoir and Broadway show, it seems to feature Springsteen himself as the narrator, observing the ways that music can sustain us, with a tone pitched between deep reverence and loss.
That simple but elusive power forms the thematic heart of the record, and it also informs the sound. Last fall, Springsteen enlisted his longtime accompanists in the E Street Band to record the whole thing live in the studio during a snowy week in New Jersey. The goal was to approximate the untappable energy of their concerts and classic albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town. Working again with his 2010s collaborator Ron Aniello, the plan might have also been to avoid the obsessive tinkering that has distracted from his straightforward, earnest songwriting on recent records.
Flourished with organ and saxophone, music box piano and glockenspiel, surf guitar licks and driving rhythm, Letter to You is bold and self-referential, using the sound of Springsteen’s own catalog the way he once treated the entirety of rock history. The songs are occasionally great—“Ghosts” and “Burnin’ Train,” in particular—and sometimes they feel remarkable just due to their old-school presentation. It is a welcome return after two decades of E Street records that, even at their best, tended to downplay the band’s strengths.
Ironically, some of the strongest moments come from a time before Springsteen settled on those trademarks. A trio of original songs written in the early ’70s, while he was still an unsigned solo act, are given their first official studio outings, all enlivened with full-band arrangements that stretch out past the six-minute mark. My favorite is “Janey Needs a Shooter,” with a stunning coda and a Stevie Van Zandt-accompanied chorus, like a sea of fist pumps rising from a sweaty crowd. The other two songs—“If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans”—aren’t quite as seamless, but it is fascinating hearing the band find their place behind Springsteen’s feverish word-association, a challenge that results in joyful chaos.
The lyrics to these older songs are filled with skepticism toward salvation and sentimentality, an undercurrent to the record’s more romantic moments. (“Forget about the old friends and the old times,” he shouts in “If I Was the Priest.”) He approaches the idea again in “Rainmaker,” a gravelly outlier about desperate people in dire times, putting their faith in false prophets. “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad,” he sings, his voice full of fire and empathy. He claims to have written the song with political intent during the Bush years, but it gains resonance coming from an artist who has commanded so much loyalty and devotion on his own. Surrounded by songs about the life-affirming power of music, it poses a question: What happens if the people we turn to for answers, transcendence, and hope have none to offer? What happens when the show is over?
This darkness and self-doubt is the other side of his story: the bandleader in “Last Man Standing” leaving the stage alone, with “just the ringing in [his] ears.” These lyrics are frequently offset by the E Street Band’s cozy presence, like sonic pep talks, adding a new purpose to their familiar roles. The album begins quietly with “One Minute You’re Here,” a gorgeous fragment featuring Springsteen on acoustic guitar, singing in a low, helpless drawl over faint brushes of piano and twinkling synth. When it segues into the wistful, mid-tempo title track, he introduces his bandmates less as a triumphant return than a man fighting back tears before collapsing into a group hug.
In a black-and-white documentary accompanying the album, Springsteen’s home studio appears as a kind of interactive museum, filled with old guitars and faded pictures of past collaborators, including the Castiles, his teenage rock band. The 2018 death of George Theiss, the Castiles’ frontman, inspired Springsteen to start writing these songs. In “Ghosts,” he describes a welcome haunting—old friends passing through by surprise, in a world that can otherwise feel sad and empty. The best moments on the album have a similar effect. The closing track is called “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and the verse melody shares a striking resemblance to the guitar riff from “Born to Run.” “We’ll meet and live and laugh again,” he sings hopefully. “For death is not the end.” The future has never been more uncertain; the past has never seemed further away. But as long as the band is playing, the dream is alive.
Buy: Rough Trade
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