The message you get from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Letter To You is that these guys want you to know they’re still very good at what they do, they still like doing it, and, you can’t help but feel, they’re in no rush to finish any time soon.
Musically, the album is full of crashing guitars, big drums, and signature flourishes from piano and keyboard. Not so much is heard of Jake Clemons’ saxophone, but you are never left in any doubt that the E Street Band is still firing on plenty of cylinders.
The title track, and Ghosts, in particular, are good strong catchy rockers. Rainmaker brings a rare – but welcome – edge of blues. Only the album opener, One Minute You’re Here, is a genuine ballad. And Springsteen himself still sings with passion, and with strength. Maybe the fact that this album was recorded “as live” in his home studio over just a few days gave him that sense of singing in concert. He was 70 when this album was recorded, and Bruce can still belt it out. More importantly, as any Bruce follower will tell you, he always sings as though the song means something to him, and there is no sign of that commitment waning on Letter To You.
Springsteen has said that the band is built for hard times, and often, as in The River, Nebraska and Wrecking Ball, the band and its songwriter have encompassed economic hardship, and all that this means for the social fabric of the USA. Of course Springsteen has also delved into America’s military record, its treatment of minorities, and he’s often been willing to reflect on adult relationships, and how they fall.
Letter To You brings another issue to the table: mortality. The opening song, Last Man Standing, Ghosts and I’ll See You in My Dreams all deal fairly and squarely with someone in the last stage of their life, farewelling friends who have died. The songs are full of emotion but they are also direct:
Big black train coming’ down the track
Blow your whistle long and long
One minute you’re here
Next minute you’re gone
These are the opening lines of Letter to You’s opening song. Springsteen is not scared of death here but he’s in no hurry to meet it.
This album is released close to Election Day in the USA. Springsteen has always been a Democrat and of late an open critic of Trump. The current president (at the time of writing) isn’t mentioned by name, but the references are unmistakable. “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, they’ll hire a rainmaker.” And then, in House of a Thousand Guitars, “The criminal clown has stolen the crown, He steals what he can never own.”
Another aspect of Letter to You deserves special attention. Springsteen includes three songs he wrote early in his career but never released on any previous album. He has re-recorded Janey Needs A Shooter, If I Was A Priest, and Song for Orphans, and in these songs we are taken back to the time when Springsteen was likened to another Dylan, and lyrically you can see why. Try this, from Song for Orphans:
The multitude assembled and tried to make the noise
The black blind poet generals and restless loud white boys
Times grew thin and the axis grew somehow incomplete
Where instead of child lions
We had ageing junkie sheep
As in many of his songs, Springsteen throws Catholic imagery around. “If I Was The Priest” features Jesus, Mary, the Holy Grail and Mass, all in a tale of hard luck characters fighting for their place in the sun. All this may not be your cup of tea, but actually If I Was The Priest is a fantastic song and for me, close to the stand out track on the album. Springsteen sings the chorus as if his life depended on it, and the song has a searing solo guitar outro.
Letter to You is an album that would once have become the heart of a big tour. In these times, it is open to doubt whether we will ever see Springsteen and his beloved band back on stage. He undoubtedly wants to get back in front of an audience. His audience is waiting. In the meantime, this album, and any others which follow, will have to do. Letter to You will keep you company very very well.