Music has an amazing capacity to transport us to another time and place, often to our youth. A particular song may help one revisit the feelings she enjoyed at the time of her first kiss or the joy he felt in driving his first car. The magic of music, indelibly linked to our memories, may be why every generation, without fail, thinks that none of the music future generations produce is ever as good as the tunes from yesteryear. It’s why the band you listened to tirelessly in college can make a new album today, but seldom will it measure up to their old stuff, in your mind.
Unless that artist happens to be Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen has garnered 20 Grammys, won an Oscar and a Tony, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received a Kennedy Center Honor, and was MusiCares’ 2013 Person of the Year. Springsteen’s memoir “Born to Run” (Simon & Schuster) and its companion album, “Chapter and Verse,” were released in September 2016, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2016. His historic 236-show “Springsteen on Broadway” ran from October 2017 to December 2018.
What could he possibly have left to say and how on earth could it measure up to his legendary life’s work? His new album, “Letter To You” (out Friday Oct. 23), answers both questions. He has plenty to say and this music nestles comfortably among his best work.
“Letter To You” is an in-depth retrospective. Bruce has always had a knack for telling the story of every man. His vivid descriptions evoke a familiarity to all who listen and the new album takes it a step further. It’s not unusual for a man in his seventies to reflect on his own mortality, but few can convey it so effectively as Springsteen.
The opening track “One Minute You’re Here” is nothing but raw simplicity. It’s Springsteen by himself, his raspy voice and his acoustic guitar, joined later in the tune by a light sprinkle of piano keys and some sparse strings. It’s a reflection by a 71-year-old man at the fragility of life.
“I thought I knew just who I was
“And what I’d do but I was wrong
“One minute you’re here
“Next minute you’re gone.”
“One Minute You’re Here” is hauntingly familiar in that Bruce’s words are essentially those that go through all of our heads at a time of loss.
The second song on the album is the title cut. “Letter To You” has the classic E Street sound America has grown to know and love over nearly 50 years of recording. When Nils Lofgren, Gary W. Tallent, Max Weinberg, Stevie Van Zandt and company join The Boss in the studio, there is a rich and unique texture to the music that only comes from the combination of their talent. This is their first studio recording together in more than a decade. Their obvious familiarity translates to a tight cohesive sound, yet the time apart explains the hunger that keeps the music fresh.
There is a common psychotherapy exercise where a patient is assigned the task of writing a letter summing up their feelings, their fears and doubts and what they’ve learned. Springsteen captures that exercise in “Letter To You” in the midst of jangling guitars, electric keys and pounding drums. Even on the first listen its familiarity is comforting on multiple levels.
The album was recorded at his home studio over five days in November 2019, Bruce loved the intimate process. “I love the emotional nature of ‘Letter To You,’ ” says Springsteen. “And I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”
Three songs on the album, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans’ were all actually written by Springsteen in the 1970s. Their inclusion provides a fascinating segue between the times he is reflecting upon and his current-day reflections themselves.
One tune in particular, “The Power of Prayer,” demonstrates the musical power of the E Street Band. Their classic sound is evident throughout and is driven home by the patented wail of the Clemons saxophone. “Letter To You” sax duties fall to Jake Clemons, nephew of the late, great original E Streeter, Clarence Clemons. The DNA is rich in the sound.
The signature song from the collection may be Ghosts. It is new and fresh and yet somehow simultaneously blends in with works from the 1970s like Jungleland or Badlands. ” ‘Ghosts’ is about the beauty and joy of being in a band, and the pain of losing one another to illness and time,” says Springsteen. ” ‘Ghosts’ tries to speak to the spirit of the music itself, something none of us owns but can only discover and share together. In the E Street Band, it resides in our collective soul, powered by the heart.”
The album closes out with the delightfully optimistic “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Too often reflecting on decades of life can seem like a melancholy exercise. Here, it’s filled with joy and hope. Sprinsteen has always been good with a lyric. This tune goes to another level altogether and demonstrates pure songwriting excellence.
“I’ll see you in my dreams
“When all our summers have come to an end
“I’ll see you in my dreams
“We’ll meet and live and laugh again
“I’ll see you in my dreams
“Yeah up around the riverbend
“For death is not the end
“And I’ll see you in my dreams.”
“Letter to You” is Bruce Springsteen’s 20th studio album. If you’re a fan, you’ll love it. If you’re a human being, you owe it to yourself to listen. The music, the reflective lyrics and the hopeful message are all good for the soul.
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