On ‘Letter to You,’ Bruce Springsteen Revisits the Past to Find Inspiration
Bruce Springsteen has been looking back for the past few years, whether in the form of writing his “Born to Run” memoir or reminiscing that he’s “never worked nine-to-five” at his Broadway residency, he’s reconciling the past with the future, and reconvening his band for the new decade. The last time he was in the studio, Springsteen traversed the Western landscapes of Southern California. At 71, Springsteen’s 20th studio album was recorded in the winter, and that in itself is a metaphor. Tracked live, over the course of four days in Nov. 2019, “Letter to You” revisits Springsteen’s life, losses and legacy in a deeply personal way that he never quite has. Springsteen’s voice is strong and his fingers are as itchy as they’ve ever been, whether picking acoustics or shimmering through an amp which grumbles back at him. For three tracks on the album, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans,” Springsteen dipped back almost 50 years for songs he submitted to Columbia Records’ John Hammond, demos that were never “officially released.” Most Springsteen fans have heard these on bootlegs. If you ever meet Bruce, you might not want to tell him you have them, though.
Like last year’s “Western Stars,” “Letter To You,” the album, arrives alongside a film, “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You.” The black-and-white documentary opens with Springsteen strapped into his acoustic guitar and untethering his ideas as southern New Jersey welcoms its first snow of the year. The rest of the band sits around his home studio with notepads, writing down time signatures and chords. It’s an older, mellower session than the one caught in his 2013 documentary “Bruce Springsteen: The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge 0f Town.” That one had footage of Bruce and Steve Van Zandt sharing a piano stool as they banged through the cuts which would bleed all over “Candy’s Room” and the rest of the “Badlands.” This new documentary does, however, capture the making of the album, and is a good companion to the record itself.
Both the album and the film are laid out like a letter. “Letter to You,” as Springsteen explains in the documentary, is “a 45-year conversation.” He played guitar because he was “looking for someone to speak to and correspond with.” Springsteen still feels the need to communicate, and he does with this record. He begins the album alone, singing and picking his acoustic on the somber “One Minute You’re Gone.” The song is a letter to friends lost, especially E Street members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, and George Theiss, the singer of the Castiles, Springsteen’s first band, and it sets the tone for the album. Like the track, “Wreck on the Highway,” from “The River,” it reminds the listener to enjoy what you got while you still got it. Springsteen misses the circus, he sings, which may as well be “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” That song features a memorable accordion part from the late Federici, who co-founded the E Street Band with Springsteen in 1972. References to fallen musicians are all over the record, from a subtle nod to Tom Petty’s riff from the song “Freefallin’,” on “Ghosts,” to subtle chord intervals which lock moments in time.
The E Street Band’s sound is instantly recognizable on “Letter to You,” the title track, from the layered guitars of Springsteen, Van Zandt and Lofgren to the drumming of Weinberg, the title track captures them in a light that can only be achieved when they play live. Even if an occasional E minor comes in early. Roy “The Professor” Bittan’s unmistakable piano opens the physically romantic “Power of Prayer.” Springsteen’s preaching to the choir on this one, invoking the power of closing time with Ben E. King on the jukebox. “Last Man Standing,” is written for the Castiles founder George Thiess. The documentary explains Springsteen saw Thiess, who dated his sister and actually pulled him into the band, when he was 68 and in the final stages of lung cancer. When he died, Springsteen became the last Castile, the last living member. The E Street Band has fun sonically trying on the types of melodies of bands who wore a “Snakeskin vest in a Shark-fin suit,” as the lyrics say, would wear. The break on the song could have been on “The River,” without a note changed. It has the same chord intervals as “Backstreets,” and we feel the subliminal nostalgia without any need for lyrics. Weinberg’s stuttered false ending run recalls the offbeat fake endings Ringo Starr put on the Beatles’ “Free As a Bird,” another song celebrating a lost member of a ‘60s band.
The band really lights up “House of a Thousand Guitars,” which opens bare to a solo piano, and is melodically different from most of Springsteen’s fare. The piano countermelody sounds more like something Steve Nieve might come up with for Elvis Costello. But when the organ comes in the song begins to morph into more familiar territory, just a few measures before the band kicks in full and transforms it into the E Street sound. “If I Was the Priest” was one of the songs from the Hammond demo. Bruce sang and played piano on the demo and captured a completely different arc of crescendo and drama than the band lets loose with. This is a perfectly fine E Street Band rendition, but with all the instruments providing the backing at even levels, it loses the complexity and abandon of the original sole keyboard accompaniment.
This is the first time “Janey Needs a Shooter,” which never made it past the demo stage, is getting the full band studio treatment. After Bruce signed with Colombia, the media went nuts over him, dubbing him the “New Dylan.” If he’d have used this arrangement, the press might have thought he was mocking them. The trebly open of ringing guitar and the Hammond B-3 organ sound like they were lifted from an alternate take for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Similarly, from the get-up-the-energy snare hits to the breathy harmonica of the opening, “Song for Orphans” could have been on side two of Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline.” Springsteen ends the way he began. Not this record, but the one which put him over the top. He mentions Roy Orbison singing for the lonely in “Thunder Road,” and pays homage to both his strum pattern and rising melodies on “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Lyrically, there is a funereal finality to the closing song, especially when the former kid from the Jersey shore talks about last summers. But when the band kicks in, it’s not time for sadness.
“Letter to You” is a great return to form accompanied by a set of memorable performances. The band’s chemistry becomes familiar the second they hit the right mix. The uniformity of sound is also the only disappointing thing on the album. Each member of E Street is versatile on their instruments. Springsteen has been able to capture a variety of sonic realities in the studio, whether using only a few players or the full band. Each song is structured to the strengths of the players and is served well. But it lacks the aural experiments the band has captured consistently over the years. There is less space in the atmosphere. Maybe if they used one of those Sears and Roebuck guitars with speakers in the case, they might have been inspired to do something unexpected. Instead we get exactly what we want.