Bruce Springsteen’s new album Letter to You is not directly about life in the tumultuous year of 2020, the way that The Rising represented a response to the events of 9/11. There is no mention of the pandemic, and not much political content.
Yet we need this album — which will be released on Oct. 23 — just as much as we needed The Rising, then.
At a time when foolishness runs rampant, it’s a work of wisdom. At a time when everything seems so empty and meaningless, it’s grandly ambitious. At a time when people feel isolated, it celebrates unity and a shared sense of purpose. At a time when new art of any kind is hard to come by, it’s a major work from a major artist.
Letter to You was recorded over a five-day period at Springsteen’s home studio in Colts Neck in November 2019 (which explains the lack of pandemic references). The whole band played together, with few overdubs, giving the album a fresh, organic feel. Surprisingly, new recordings of three songs from Springsteen’s distant past — “Song for Orphans,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Janey Needs a Shooter,” all written in the early ’70s but never released — made it onto the album, along with newer material.
The presence of the older songs and the speed at which the album was recorded may have led some fans to assume that this would be a disconnected collection of randomly chosen songs — a sort of High Hopes II — but surprisingly, it comes off as a coherent whole.
I see the first two songs as a kind of introduction.
The delicate, sparsely arranged “One Minute You’re Here” makes it clear that mortality is on Springsteen’s mind. He lays it out bluntly: “One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.”
He may have contemplated death when he was younger, too, but now now that he’s older, it seems more real. “On the muddy banks/I lay my body down/This body down,” he sings. Death is no longer abstract; it’s a threat to his specific body.
He also includes two references to the end of summer in the song. The end of summer is a big deal for him; check out the transcript of one of his recent SiriusXM DJ shows devoted to that subject.
The second part of the album’s two-song intro is the title track, which was also the album’s first single. I have to confess that I did not love this song as a single, but it takes on greater meaning in the context of the entire album, tying everything together. The “letters,” of course, represent songs — the method through which Springsteen has brought meaning to his life — and the “you” is whoever is listening.
Tracks 3 through 11 are, then, the letters: Songs that zero in on different aspects of life, with certain themes recurring.
In “Ghosts” (the album’s second single) and “Last Man Standing,” Springsteen looks back on his own history as a musician.
In the former, he feels the presence of musical comrades who have died as a force in the present. “I need/Need you by my side/Your love and I’m alive!” he exclaims, in perhaps the album’s most thrilling moment.
Similarly, in “Last Man Standing,” he looks for inspiration in his own past: “Rock of ages lift me somehow/Somewhere high and hard and loud/Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd/I’m the last man standing now,” he sings, referring to the fact that he’s the last surviving member of his first band, The Castiles.
Expanding on this theme is “House of a Thousand Guitars,” which is not a cover of the Willie Nile song (and actually reminded me of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”). But like Nile’s song, it’s a rousing anthem about the power of music itself. “Wake and shake off your troubles, my friend/We’ll go where the music never ends/From the stadiums to the small-town bars/We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars,” Springsteen sings.
The power of music is also a theme of “The Power of Prayer,” though this song is really more about the idea that love itself is, in a way, a manifestation of the power of prayer.
There is an obvious reference to President Trump in “House of a Thousand Guitars”: “The criminal clown has stolen the throne/He steals what he can never own.” But that’s not what the song is about. “Rainmaker” is the album’s only song that offers an extensive political metaphor, castigating a con man for taking advantage of people who are hurting.
“Burnin’ Train” is the album’s hardest rocker, with lots of death imagery and religious references. It’s breathtaking, musically, but it’s also the song I’d most like to hear Springsteen talk about a little, just to make sure I understand what he’s going for, lyrically.
You could easily argue that “Song for Orphans,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Janey Needs a Shooter” are the album’s least essential songs, though they do add some resonance by providing a connection to Springsteen’s early days as a musician, and the manic verbosity that was a trademark of his work, then.
It’s fascinating to hear what he and the E Street Band, as mature musicians, do with them now. For “Song for Orphans” and “If I Was the Priest,” they come up with richly textured sound that evokes Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album and his mid-’60s tours with The Band. I can’t listen to “Song for Orphans,” in particular, without thinking about this arrangement of “One Too Many Mornings.”
The album’s 12th and final song, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is another galloping rocker, but one that ties together the album’s themes and puts a hopeful spin on them. Springsteen once again sings about departed friends and the end of summer, though now it’s “when all our summers have come to an end.” But he asserts that death is not the end and, somehow, “we’ll meet and live and laugh again.”
Let me repeat that this song was recorded in November 2019. But if Springsteen were trying, now, to write an anthem to help people hold onto hope during the pandemic, he couldn’t have done a better job.
It almost sounds like something he said on one of his SiriusXM shows, recorded in pandemic isolation, when he promised to throw “the wildest party you have ever seen,” after all this is over.
“We’ll meet and live and laugh again.”
For more information, visit brucespringsteen.net.
Here is a trailer for a documentary on the making of the album that will debut on Apple TV+ on Oct. 23:
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