Not long ago we had a discussion at Sounds from the Dark Side HQ about how the baby boomer generation of musicians would do well to finally retire. Cause of that discussion was the release of Weltschmerz, the final album by Fish. It’s a retreading of all too familiar ground that can’t hold a candle to his glory days and the man himself sounds old, tired and burnt out. When we tried to think of examples of bands who are still relevant at that age I couldn’t think of any other than Deep Purple, who are on an insane creative high at the moment with Now What!?, Infinite and the recently released Whooosh! Other than Purple? Nothing.
Iron Maiden? Still ok in the studio but the vocals on the upcoming new live album sound so strained that it becomes uncomfortable to listen to. Nick Cave is still stuck in Skeleton Tree mode. Electric Light Orchestra, whilst still fun, are cruising on past glory. Roger Waters will be rambling politically and playing Dark Side of the Moon until he retires. The old gang is spent and musically irrelevant. The only exception was David Bowie on his last two studio albums and he retired involuntarily.
And then there’s The Boss; Bruce Springsteen. Still a powerhouse to be reckoned with on any live stage, but musically? Most of his eighties and nineties output is subpar and the stuff he released with the E Street Band from The Rising onwards is mostly good from a songwriting perspective but suffers massively from overproduction and an overdose of polish. And then Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons passed away and the creative well all but completely dried up. High Hopes was an ok album but also a compilation of long abandoned B-sides and re-recordings. After that Bruce his a musical writer’s block, released an autobiography, did a long stint on Broadway and did some excessive introvert country noodling on last year’s Western Stars. Another fine example of an artist way past his prime who maybe should just pack his things and retire, right? Imagine my surprise then last week when Letter to You was released and it turned out to actually be good!
To be fair, “good” might be an understatement. Letter to You might very well be the best album he’s released since he reunited with the E Street Band in 1999. I’d put it on the same creative pedestal as The Rising (2002) or Magic (2007) when it comes to songwriting, but the sound is more raw and has more of a live feel, making it an infinitely more joyous album to listen to. Recorded live in the studio in just four days with a minimum of overdubs has resulted in a really spontaneous sounding album and the twelve songs (three or which were written before Springsteen’s 1973 debut) are mostly excellent. Let’s dig in.
Things start out quietly with One Minute You’re Here though, which is another in a long line of subdued faux-country songs Springsteen has been releasing over the past two decades. He mumbles more than he sings but it doesn’t grate or annoy like a number of similar songs did in the past. The title song then picks up the pace in good old E Street fashion and it’s a joy to hear all the familiar elements fall comfortably into place again. Springsteen’s gravelly voice, Bittan’s subtle piano, Giordiano’s organ, Nils and Steve on the guitars, Max’s thunderous drumming; it feels like coming home after an extended break. Things speed up even more on the following Burnin’ Train before we hit the first of the revisited and revisioned oldies with Janey Needs a Shooter, which stylistically would not be out of place on one of Bruce’s earliest records. Driven by Charles Giordano’s sweeping organ parts, classic E Street vocal harmonies and a mouth organ solo it’s as classic Bruce as it gets.
Letter to You goes on lobbing highlight after highlight at the listener. Last Man Standing is big and anthemic and sounds like it belongs on the big stage. The Power of Prayer is a little more subdued and piano-driven with some great saxophone parts thrown in for good measure. House of a Thousand Guitars is dramatic and emotional. Seven songs in and it’s mostly good to excellent until the train comes to a grinding halt on the clunky Rainmaker. It’s a typical latter-day Bruce track that’s big on strings, has unremarkable verses and an anticlimactic but big shouting chorus. It’s bearable but not more than that. Luckily it’s the only song that’s not up to par amongst the rest on this almost sixty minute lasting record. Both the older tracks If I Was the Priest and the immensely Dylan-esque Song for Orphans are excellent, as is the melancholy rocker Ghosts. The journey comes to a fitting close with I’ll See You in My Dreams where, like on Ghosts, Bruce remembers those who he’s lost along the way.
This late in his career, I had not expected a return to form like Letter to You has turned out to be. And it’s not only a very good Springsteen album but also a bittersweet one. It’s about the Boss looking back on his life and career, from the very early days of The Castiles to the recent past and the people he lost. With the remaining E Street members either over or fast approaching the age of seventy, it might also be the last time we’ve heard the gang together like this. Letter to You is both a joyous celebration of life, friendship and music where, through everything, the melancholy is almost palpable. Above all though it’s a fantastic rock album, and if it proves to be Bruce and the E Street’s final collaboration, they go out on a terrific high.
Label: Columbia, 2020
- One Minute You’re Here (2:57)
- Letter to You (4:55)
- Burnin’ Train (4:03)
- Janey Needs a Shooter (6:49)
- Last Man Standing (4:05)
- The Power of Prayer (3:36)
- House of a Thousand Guitars (4:30)
- Rainmaker (4:56)
- If I Was the Priest (6:50)
- Ghosts (5:54)
- Song for Orphans (6:13)
- I’ll See You in My Dreams (3:29)
- Bruce Springsteen – guitar, vocals, harmonica, production
- Nils Lofgren – guitar, vocals
- Steven Van Zandt – guitar, vocals
- Roy Bittan – piano, vocals
- Jake Clemons – saxophone
- Charles Giordano – organ, vocals
- Patti Scialfa – vocals
- Garry Tallent – bass guitar, vocals
- Max Weinberg – drums, vocals
Review by Ralph Plug