On most of the albums in his large catalog, Bruce Springsteen limns fictional characters—everyone from the kids trying to escape their small-town lives in “Thunder Road” to the downtrodden folks in the John Steinbeck–inspired “Ghost of Tom Joad.” Though last year’s Western Stars also seems to have issued mostly from the Boss’s imagination, he has in recent years been drawing more and more from the facts of his own life—for his Broadway show, for his autobiography, and now for much of Letter to You, his 20th studio album, which he and the band created live in his New Jersey home studio in an atypically quick five days. (There were reportedly a few subsequent overdubs, but not many.) It’s Bruce’s first album with the band since 2014’s High Hopes.
Songs about death bookend the record, which Springsteen has said reflects the loss of bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, as well as of George Theiss, from Bruce’s teenage group the Castiles. The poignant “One Minute You’re Here” is an unusually somber and low-key choice for an album opener but its lyrics about how life can end in an instant set the tone for what follows. The companion track that closes the album, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” finds Springsteen concluding that “death is not the end.”
In between are several songs with links to his earliest days in music. He wrote “Last Man Standing” after the 2018 death of Theiss, which left him as the only living veteran of the Castiles. The same loss inspired “Ghosts,” where Springsteen sings, “I’m alive and I’m out here on my own.” Also here are three songs that Bruce actually wrote in the dawn of the 1970s, prior to the release of his debut album: “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans.” (You can find very different versions of the latter two numbers on assorted bootlegs and unofficial releases. “Janey” may show up on a bootleg somewhere as well.)
Several of the selections address the power of rock and roll, starting with the title cut, in which a “letter to you” appears to be a metaphor for the music Springsteen has sent to his fans over the years: “Things I found out through hard times and good / I wrote ’em all out in ink and blood / Dug deep in my soul and signed my name true / And sent it in my letter to you.”
Other songs about music include “The Power of Prayer,” which namechecks “This Magic Moment” by the Drifters and their lead singer, Ben E. King; and the anthemic “House of a Thousand Guitars,” in which Springsteen invites us to “wake and shake off your troubles, my friend / We’ll go where the music never ends.”
While the record is largely personal and introspective, Bruce does throw in a few apparent political references. “The Power of Prayer,” for example, mentions “the criminal clown” who “has stolen the throne,” and in “Rainmaker” he observes that “rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white” and notes that “sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad…They’ll hire a rainmaker.” (Gee, I wonder who he’s talking about in these songs.)
So how does Letter to You stack up musically? To these ears, it’s too uneven to rank with Springsteen’s greatest albums. “Ghosts” and “Last Man Standing” are likable but musically rather slight; “Rainmaker” is plodding; and “Burnin’ Train,” while powerful, sounds like a rewrite of such earlier numbers as “Living Proof.” As for the trio of early 1970s tracks—which at more than six minutes each are the longest songs on the album—their inclusion is understandable given the album’s focus on Springsteen’s roots but they’re a bit verbose and not particularly melodic. In the end, they serve mostly just to underscore how much Bruce has matured as a songwriter since he wrote them.
That still leaves five numbers that no fan is going to want to be without, however. “One Minute You’re Here,” for example, is as haunting as anything on Nebraska, and the title cut is a high-energy potential hit with echoes of Phil Spector and the band in perfect sync. “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” meanwhile, is musically indelible and affecting. And “The Power of Prayer” and the anthemic “House of a Thousand Guitars,” both of which should be played loud, demonstrate that music can be just as potent as their lyrics say it can be.
A Welcome Reissue from Jimmie Vaughan
In 2010 and 2011, blues-rock guitarist Jimmie Vaughan released a pair of first-rate albums that have now been packaged together and reissued as The Pleasure’s All Mine—The Complete Blues, Ballads and Favorites Collection. Vaughan—an alumnus of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the older brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan—shines throughout and benefits from backup by a fine group that includes vocalists Lou Ann Barton and Bill Willis.
The two-CD, 31-track set (which includes two bonus numbers) features such highlights as Little Richard’s “Send Me Some Lovin’,” Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends,” Doug Sahm’s “Why, Why, Why,” Jimmy Reed’s “Come Love,” Johnny Ace’s “How Can You Be So Mean,” and Don Harris and Dewey Terry’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You,” which you may know from the 1963 pop hit by Dale & Grace.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.