Bruce Springsteen’s career has been spent observing. As he once so aptly put it, the songwriter has spent half a century discussing the gap between the American dream and the American reality, watching the figures who stretch across this divide.
With his 2015 autobiography and subsequent Broadway show, however, The Boss seemed to look inwards. It’s a spell of introspection that has left him profoundly altered, one that has re-shaped the way he looks at his own position in the world, and also the relationships that surround him.
New album ‘Letter To You’ is forever haunted by the spectre of death, the voice of a songwriter concerned with ageing, and with the prospect of watching those around him fade away. It’s a voice undaunted, though – throughout, Springsteen gives amply demonstration of the kind of rip-snorting, heart-pounding, pulse-chasing rock ‘n’ roll that only he can provide.
Except it’s not a solo endeavour. ‘Letter To You’ is as much about the ties that bind as it is about the person at the centre, with the lyrics continually focussing on the reality of the shared experience – in a way, it’s a kind of love letter to the E Street Band, penned while those around him can still read it.
Bombastic yet ruminative, it opens with the brooding march that underpins ‘One Minute You’re Here’, a kind of funereal stomp with a gutsy vocal. This pensive nature doesn’t linger long, however, with the title track romping into that classic crunching E Street Band sound, with some operatic Phil Spector overtones and slight country twang to the guitar, perhaps an aural remainder from last year’s ‘Western Stars’ project.
At its best, ‘Letter To You’ offers full throttle Springsteen rock ‘n’ roll, replete with visions of the open road, with only a full tank of gas and a heart full of regrets to show for it. ‘Burnin’ Train’ could give The Killers a lesson in bombast, while ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ opens with tinkling piano notes and a coarse, breathless vocal before building to a crunching finale, soaked in gospel influences.
Indeed, the church, faith, and spirituality frame much of Springsteen’s lyrics. ‘If I Was The Priest’ - one of three songs written in the 70s but left unreleased that find their way to the record – is a storming rocker, packed with belief and staunch assertion, while the simple, repeated call of that outlines ‘The Power Of Prayer’ is a masterclass in brevity.
A record that feels thrillingly alive – typically for an E Street Band venture, it keeps as close to the concert experience as possible - ‘Letter To You’ finds room to move from the thrashing, new wave chords of ‘Ghost’ to the Hammond-driven Southern soul that fuels ‘Jenny Needs A Shooter’.
Curiously, ‘Letter To You’ is often at its most fascinating when Springsteen himself is at his most plaintive, dialling back the fist-pumping stadium sounds to embrace silence. Take the Dylan ‘66 elements that pepper ‘Song For Ophans’ for example, or the sweet promise of ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’.
As a whole, ‘Letter To You’ is a wonderfully warm experience, perhaps Springsteen’s most human for some time. An attempt to deal with the realities of ageing, and the processes of growing older, it’s also a vivid depiction of friendship, one enacted with figures who – in their own unique way – have helped to sculpt his own mythology. Bold, defiant, and thrillingly driven, it locates the songwriter on a plain marked both by vulnerability and stubborn defiance. As Springsteen’s own song has it, he’s Last Man Standing.
Words: Robin Murray
- - -
- - -
Join us on the ad-free creative social network Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks, exclusive content and access to Clash Live events and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.