Music, more so than in any other year in my nearly half-century on this planet, has served as comfort food in 2020. As much as I love/need/crave the new stuff, I’ve found myself returning to old favorites more often than usual. Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen were two of my first “grown-up” bands. Of course, we lost Eddie a few weeks ago, but Bruce, at age 71, just released his 20th album, Letter To You. If you’re a Backstreeter, and especially if this year has been extra tough on you, this record will provide all the warmth and comfort you’ll need, at least for a little while.
Springsteen’s last album, 2019’s Western Stars, was a departure for The Boss – singing in a different voice metaphorically (and sometimes literally) as new and different characters roaming the American West. For those who didn’t love it (and I DID) and want their old E Street Band back, they’re all here. Letter To You was banged out during four days in Springsteen’s well-appointed home studio last November, virtually all live with very few overdubs (and the music alone will make you long for a sweaty, packed-together concert venue). One of the draws for old-school fans is the inclusion of three long-ago written, never-released tunes from Springsteen’s early days. The first, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” gives us a young woman who’s met a predator or two in her life and a man who wants to be something better for her. The music keys on Charlie Giordano’s organ (filling in capably for the late Danny Federici). For an interesting comparison, check out Warren Zevon’s repurposing of the tune, “Jeannie Needs a Shooter.” The second rebirthed track, “If I Was The Priest,” is a nearly seven-minute epic featuring the kind of odd characters you’d find in Springsteen’s earlier work (Jesus as sheriff, the Virgin Mary a saloonkeeper) and throws in a rousing singalong chorus and a Southern rock guitar solo at the end (one that’s such an oddity on a Springsteen record that you’ll wish it lasted a little longer). And “Song for Orphans” is electric folk – imagine an alternate reality where Bruce fronted The Band. It also features his youthful hyperverbosity, but at a more laid back pace, and it hints at Bruce taking charge of his young musical world – “The confederacy is in my name now.”
In fact, much of Letter To You is about his present-day place in that musical world – more or less alone. When George Theiss, Springsteen’s bandmate and mentor in The Castiles, died in 2018, Bruce realized that he was the last alive among his early Jersey band cohorts. That inspired “Last Man Standing,” a tribute to Theiss and early gigs, long before The Boss was a thing – “Lights come up at the Legion Hall/Pool cues go back up on the wall/You pack your guitar and have one last beer/With just the ringing in your ears.” These early days and origin stories are dear to him – they also pop up in the all-out rocker “Ghosts” and album closer “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Springsteen has never been shy about expressing his love for the men in his life – just now, instead of kissing the great Clarence Clemons full on the mouth, he etches portraits of those who’ve left the space that he still inhabits.
There are a couple of appearances of Political Bruce on the record. “Rainmaker” thematically revisits “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” but the villain – “Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white” – who takes intellectual and financial advantage of his supporters seems a bit more current. And “House of A Thousand Guitars” flat-out references Trump – “The criminal clown has stolen the throne/He steals what he can never own.” But the point of the (oddly, given the title, piano-driven) track, like much of the record, is that the power of music – “From the stadiums to the small town bars” – is immeasurable, especially during the worst of times. So, is Letter To You a truly great Springsteen album? Probably not. Do the three resurrected tracks feel as indispensable as, say, the All the Rest of Wildflowers? To some, sure, but maybe not to my ears. But how lucky are we, in this true hellscape of a year, to have new music from Tom Petty AND Bruce Springsteen to dig into and bring our minds back to happier times?
Letter To You was produced by Ron Aniello and Bruce Springsteen, engineered by Aniello, Rob Lebret and Ross Petersen, mixed by Bob Clearmountain and mastered by Bob Ludiwg. The legendary E Street Band is Roy Bittan (piano, vocals), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Patti Scialfa (vocals), Garry Tallent (bass, vocals), Stevie Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Max Weinberg (drums, vocals), Charlie Giordano (organ, vocals) and Jake Clemons (saxophone).
Go here to order Letter To You: https://brucespringsteenstore.com/
Song I can’t wait to hear live: “Ghosts”