One of the things that always impressed me about Bruce Springsteen is the melodic possibilities he can find in two-chord vamps. He doesn’t do it all the time, that would prove to be monotonous all night, but when he does it is a consistent affirmation of the power of rock and roll. It’s like he took every early inspiration which weaned him and plays their feel as if it were an instrument. Not the melodies, but what the melodies convey. The “stone and the gravel” in Springsteen’s voice may not be a suitable vehicle for the smooth vibratos of Drifters’ hits, but he never misses a note or what that note wants you to feel.
The new record is called Letter to You, and Springsteen’s weathered-through-rain-heat-and-gloom-of-night delivery consistently implies a range of additional tonic possibilities. And he’s got the band to back it up. His 20th studio LP is the first to feature The E Street Band since High Hopes in 2014 and is the first time they’ve performed together since The River 2016 tour. The album came out the same day as director Thom Zimny’s Apple TV+ documentary, Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You, and we see it was recorded in Springsteen’s home studio. This is a mixed blessing. Yes, it’s obviously more comfortable than braving the first snow in Jersey to hit Hit Factory studios. But it might be a little too familiar, as the record was recorded on a factory schedule. The same one the Beatles stuck to when they were churning out hits on EMI’s clock.
Springsteen’s got the tightest rock and roll band “on the planet” around him. They’ve been playing together their whole adult lives and enjoyed triumphs and weathered losses. Hell, one of them is the Boss’s wife. They instinctively know what they’ll be playing before they’ve charted the chords and time signatures. The E Street Band – “Miami” Steve Van Zandt, Roy “The Professor” Bittan, Garry “the foundation of the E Street Nation” Tallent, “the mighty” Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, Charlie Giordano, Patti Scialfa and Jake Clemons (the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew) – hasn’t been this prominent on an album since Born in the U.S.A. The group can do anything, as their live shows attest, and Springsteen knows how to vary the sonic realities of whatever venue his musicians are playing.
On record you can hear the difference in how the band sounds on the songs “Night” and “Meeting Across the River” on Born to Run that goes beyond how many players are in the room. There is a notable difference in the aural reality of “Hungry Heart” as opposed to “The River” on the album it’s named after. Both have the full band playing, but damn if it doesn’t sound like they’re miles apart. The home studio quantizes that just a little, not that Weinberg would even need a click track. Letter to You was produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, who has produced every Springsteen album since Wrecking Ball in 2012. The pair maintain a cohesive tone throughout. The arrangements are almost uniform, but still evoke genre recognition from soft folk to their adoration of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
The band delivers “Letter to You,” the title song, on time, undamaged and you don’t have to sign for it. It is a warm hello from an old friend on behalf of a whole bunch of friends who are standing so close they can share a mic. The song is a confessional without the penance of details. The album opens with the sparse and reflective “One Minute You’re Here.” Bruce drawls like a country music veteran over acoustic guitar and strings, until he hits one line in a baritone croon, it’s a surprising change and gone by the time it registers.
“Burnin’ Train” could have been a B-side off Darkness on the Edge of Town, and would have charted. The guitars are particularly hot. Bruce bends the knee to Ben E. King, Wilson Picket and all the other disciples of soul who inspired Van Zandt to go solo on “The Power of Prayer.” Springsteen has always believed in the healing power of rock and roll, and both worships and preaches at the transcendent “House of A Thousand Guitars.”
“Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad,” Springsteen sings on “Rainmaker.” He invokes the comic rule of three to demonize the used car salesman running things without having to give power to his name. Bruce doesn’t buy the snake oil of the presidential seal. Another Republican wanted to believe Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” was a rousing anthem of national pride, when it was a sobering call on a different kind of patriotism altogether. The kind which could scare off police protection on indictments of “41 Shots.”
Bruce must have picked up one of his bootlegs while he was playing his Broadway residency. He is finally giving full-band studio treatment to three songs which were on the demo Springsteen sent to Columbia Records’ A&R god John Hammond before he formed the E Street Band in 1972. “If I Was the Priest,” with its line about Jesus being sheriff, convinced Hammond the kid from the Jersey Shore wasn’t merely a new Bob Dylan. The new version of “Song for Orphans” would fit nicely on Nashville Skyline, though. The opening jangly guitar and Hammond B-3 organ of the epic “Janey Needs a Shooter” sounds like it could have been on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.
At the heart of most of the songs on the album are the tales of survival and loss. Springsteen staged his Born to Run memoir for the solo Springsteen on Broadway run, and continues his reflections. Keyboardist Danny Federici, who co-founded the E Street Band with Springsteen, died in 2008. The “Big Man,” Clarence Clemons, died in 2011. George Theiss, who dated Springsteen’s sister and brought Bruce into his group as a teenaged guitarist, died of lung cancer in 2018. Springsteen was in The Castiles from 1965 to 1968, an “eternity in the ‘60s,” the documentary notes. “Ghosts” comes from the last surviving band member. The song also subliminally references the late Tom Petty with its nod to “Freefalling,” and rocks a traditional call and response pattern. The album ends with the somber “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Letter to You is an upbeat album with a strong downbeat.
“The pay is great, but you’re the reason we’re here,” Springsteen says at the very start of the album’s documentary. It sounds like he’s glad he’s passed the audition. Because the album comes along with the documentary, it begs comparison to the making-of documentary Let It Be. The title, Letter to You, even vaguely sounds like it, if merged with the Sesame Street parody “Letter B.” But Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is no breakup film, in spite of its stark black and white cinematography. This is a band in action. This is another album before the next album. Even if it is Springsteen’s 20th, it’s the first of the new decade and it’s got that 2020 hindsight. It’s safe at any social distance.
Letter to You is available now.