Springsteen’s ‘Letter to You’ pays tribute to lost mates and rock ‘n’ roll’s spirit

By Lynne Margolis

Bruce Springsteen | Letter to You (Columbia)
4 stars out of 5

Bruce Springsteen has spent the last two decades serving as rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest evangelist, sermonizing from the stage like a Pentecostal preacher exhorting his adoring flock to worship “the power, the promise, the majesty” of three holy chords and the truth.

But even though his entire canon serves as testimony to that power, promise and majesty, and even though he’s been writing a love letter to rock ‘n’ roll since he first began setting his dreams and desires to music, he’d never quite articulated in song just how that passion has driven his existence — until now.

On Letter to You, his 20th studio album, Springsteen examines life from the perspective of a man who’s reached the point where mortality is no longer an abstraction. Like Willie Nelson, he’s got plenty of creative juice left and much more to say, but he knows he can’t dawdle — and can’t expect others to be around forever, either. He needs to say what’s on his mind now, and gather those who can help him pull it off while the gathering’s good.

That’s why Springsteen summoned the E Street Band to his Colts Neck, New Jersey farm last November. They hadn’t performed together since the end of 2016’s The River tour, and hadn’t recorded together for even longer. So they decided not to overthink it — a great move, as it turns out. In just five days, tracking totally live — which, unbelievably, they’d done only twice previously (on “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Born in the U.S.A.”) — the band recorded nine new tunes and three unearthed from before Springsteen had recorded Greetings from Asbury Park, his debut. And yes, some of these songs could earn a place alongside his greatest hits — even if they’ll have less time to earn icon status as his touring window shrinks (with even more precious time lost to Covid-19).

With Born to Run, his 2016 autobiography, and subsequent Springsteen on Broadway run, he’s spent the last several years immersed in self-reflection, so it was a natural progression to write songs addressing, as John Lennon put it, the people and things that went before. Springsteen also can’t write the kind of songs he did as a hot young rocker full of bravado and libido; he and Wendy can’t kickstart a suicide machine and get out while they’re young if they’ve passed their 70th birthdays.

But Springsteen would never simply pen soft-focused, cotton-candy odes to nostalgia or self-pitying tears-in-beer tunes for lost loved ones. His songwriting brilliance lies in adding just enough conflict or tension, just enough juxtaposition of details, so we can simultaneously strap in beside him as he launches his memory’s time machine, and keep a foot anchored in the present — such as it is.

In “Last Man Standing,” the song that inspired the album, he drops us onstage in the venues he played as a teen in the Castiles, his first band. Written after the passing of George Theiss, who brought him into the band, it evokes a golden time when a kid with dreams and a sense of urgency was hard and young and proud/Backed against the wall, running raw and loud. When the man who was that kid becomes the lone survivor, he confesses, You count the names of the missing as you count off time. Here, Springsteen’s voice carries both appreciation and resignation; a tinge of longing for that hope-filled past mixed with awareness of its ephemeral status.

“Ghosts” also addresses lost comrades, but it celebrates those musical warriors whose spirits still very much inhabit the souls of the living. By the time Roy Bittan’s piano notes and Max Weinberg’s insistent drumbeats herald the final verse, and Bruce sings, I shoulder your Les Paul and finger the fretboard/I make my vows to those who’ve come before/I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide/Meet you brother and sister on the other side, the song has swelled into another swaggering E Street anthem. But it’s not only an affectionate nod to the fallen; it’s also a note to those who will follow — a hope that they’ll respect the memories of their forebears in the great continuum that is rock ‘n’ roll.

In Thom Zimny’s lovingly filmed companion documentary, also debuting Friday (Oct. 23), Springsteen notes that a rock band is a social unit, greater than the sum of its parts.

“‘Ghosts,’” he says, “is about the beauty and joy of being in a band, and the pain of losing one another to illness and time.”

These songs seem to simultaneously memorialize a beloved friend and prepare listeners for the eventuality that they will memorialize him. Perhaps that’s why the album starts with a quietly haunting track, “One Minute You’re Here,” that sounds like an outtake from Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. In the film, Springsteen explains its roots in a childhood spent attending many funerals, peering into open caskets and learning to “stare death briefly in the eye.”

But he quickly picks up the pace with “Letter to You,” an affecting song that feels both intimate and anthemic. Alternating between high notes and his grittier lower register, his voice somehow seems more supple than ever, backed by touches of guitar twang that provide a sense of big-sky majesty before an oh-so-E-Street Charlie Giordano-Max Weinberg organ-drum assault that abruptly shifts into quiet piano, and another beautifully sung verse.  

Springsteen says this song is his love letter to rock ‘n’ roll, and to his fans. It also expresses his ever-present need to communicate, to carry on this 45-year conversation he’s had with this band and his listeners. In a narrative that sounds like poetry, voiced over Zimny’s lingering black-and-white images, Springsteen says that need is “one of the most consistent impulses in my life, as reliable as the rhythmic beating of my own heart.”

He also notes, “The E Street Band is not a job. It is a vocation, a calling. It is one of the most important things in your life.

“And of course,” he adds, “it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.”

There it is … that impeccable ability to simultaneously venerate and deprecate, to inflate emotional balloons, then stick a humorous pin in them before they get too lofty. But he won’t let us forget who’s also in the room: departed E Streeters Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, whose legacy is ably carried by his nephew, Jake Clemons.

We see both along with youthful images of each member in the film. At one point, fresh-faced bandmates Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt converse about a song, then seamlessly continue the conversation as their present-day selves. If we couldn’t already feel the thread flowing continuously from then to now, that moment drives it home elegantly.

By the third track, “Burnin’ Train,” there’s no question that we’re in for another trademark Springsteen experience, this time with Weinberg’s propulsive drumming accompanying a gospel arrangement. As the guitar solo asserts its energy, it confirms that THIS is rock ‘n’ roll — full of all the mojo-risin’, soul testifyin’ goodness the Boss and his band have been delivering for nearly five decades. At this point, we know the sermon by heart.

We also know that Springsteen faces the unique challenge of having done what he’s done so many times, some songs are bound to resemble others. That’s the case with “The Power of Prayer,” which shares DNA with “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” But it elevates from OK to “all right!” with its last verse, on which Springsteen, accompanied mainly by Bittan’s piano, sings, “This Magic Moment” drifts across the floor/As Ben E. King’s voice fills the air/Baby, that’s the power of prayer.

“Song for Orphans,” one of the old tunes, is so Dylan-like, it almost lampoons Springsteen’s early status as a “new Dylan.” Structurally related to “My Back Pages,” even its lyrics sound like they came from Dylan’s notebook. Springsteen attributes it to “the way I wrote back then” — with lots of words. In fact, he says in the film, Dylan called Columbia Records executive Clive Davis after Greetings from Asbury Park came out and cautioned that if this upstart wasn’t careful, “I was going to use up the entire English language.”

“If I was the Priest,” another early one, has the vibe of “Blinded by the Light,” the feel of a mini-epic, and the wild scenario, If Jesus was a sheriff and I was the priest.

“Janey Needs a Shooter,” the final early revival, and “Rainmaker” are the weakest tracks; not clunkers, but not thrillers.

But our reverend reappears on “House of a Thousand Guitars,” singing of communion shared on that holy rock ‘n’ roll altar, where all good souls near and far can rise together till we fire that spark. There’s a plaintive, yet prayerful, tone to this one, as Springsteen calls on his followers to wake and shake off your troubles and go where the music never ends/from stadiums to the small-town bars. Of course, he knows it’s spiritually adjacent to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and appropriately so, even though the songs are nothing alike. On this one, Patti Scialfa leads a gospel chorus, as her husband expresses the core of his life’s mission: to spread the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll among the faithful and convince the heathens — should any still exist — of its supreme power, channeled through a torahlike vessel of wood and wire. 

The final song, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is a lullaby-like benediction. While it also mourns loss, it offers solace in sentiments such as When all our summers have come to an end/I’ll see you in my dreams/We’ll meet and live and laugh againYeah up around the riverbend/For death is not the end.

In the film, longtime friend and comanager Jon Landau seemingly wipes away a tear as he listens next to Ron Aniello, who coproduced with Springsteen. “It’s got a magnificence to it,” he pronounces.

As they toast the departed, Springsteen says with a laugh, “We’re takin’ this thing till we’re all in the box, boys.”

On The River tour’s opening night, six days after David Bowie’s death, Springsteen said that album was partly about time.

“You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work and take care of your family and try to do something good,” he observed.

With Letter to You, the Boss wants us to know that when our time ends, we don’t just fade away. In the hearts and memories of those who love us, we can live forever.

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