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Bruce Springsteen - Letter To You (Album Review)

Wednesday, 28 October 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Danny Clinch

“One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.” With contemplation to the fore as the ticking of father time’s clock grows ever louder, the opening lines of Bruce Springsteen’s barnstorming reunion with the E-Street Band usher forth a collection of life-affirming songs that, by celebrating the ups and downs of an artistic life less ordinary, help their creator rise above the circling cloud of mortality.

If Springsteen’s candid autobiography and subsequent award winning run on Broadway offered a cerebral, fourth wall-breaking dissection of his life and work, ‘Letter To You’ comes instinctively from the heart and soul. Revisiting and revivifying the passions, sounds, styles and emotional touchstones of his career in an almost meta way, it’s a spiritual journey that strives to mine meaning, validation and, ultimately, a sense of purpose from his artistic odyssey.

Two telling cuts frame that narrative arc. Opener One Minute You’re Here, which sounds like we’ve rejoined him at the Moonlight Motel where last year’s ‘Western Stars’ left off, finds a lonesome man beset by existential doubt.

But by album closer See You In My Dreams, where Springsteen euphorically proclaims “death is not the end”, he’s found redemption and fulfilment within the bonds of creative collaboration and made peace with life’s inescapable final act.

For all the potency of his solo work, Springsteen’s output with the E-Street Band will define his legacy. Recorded live in a whirlwind four days, ‘Letter To You’ boasts a fittingly raw, last-night-live immediacy. Glockenspiels, cinematic piano intros, twanging Telecasters, celestial sax, boisterous hooks and bawdy backing vocals add classic colour to the modern sounding Ghosts, an imperious anthem that screams “I’m alive” with epiphanistic delight, and House Of A Thousand Guitars’ nostalgic, sadly prescient, minor key salute to live music’s salvatory power.

After stubbornly swerving repetition throughout his career, Springsteen gleefully draws from all eras of his catalogue here while also incorporating a personal edge. Last Man Standing, a  Downbound Train brooder that honours late Castiles bandmate George Theiss, meditates on the transience and vitality of existence as it asks if time has been well spent. Rainmaker—think ‘The Rising’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ together on an anti-Trump protest march—may seemingly attack demigods feted as saviours, but could easily be a metaphorical, self-deprecating dig at the uncomfortable deity-like status he attained post ‘Born In The USA’.

Elsewhere, some unearthed gems from the ‘70s deliver past authenticity with a modern E-Street attack. Mid-tempo slugger Janey Needs A Shooter is both the musical love child of Backstreets and Darkness On The Edge Of Town and a lyrical sibling to Candy’s Room. Song For Orphans, with its see-sawing poetic refrain and dexterous wordplay, knowingly reminds us of the ‘new Bob Dylan’ tag the Boss was ‘gifted’ early on. A fine representation of those hallowed times, such familiar yet fresh cuts work because they were written back in the day. Had modern day Bruce attempted to duplicate that youthful style, it would likely have resulted in embarrassing pastiche.  

But ‘Letter To You’ isn’t one of Springsteen’s masterpieces. The title track, despite its impassioned vocal gusto and catchy melodic sway, falls instrumentally flat and needed a little slow burning sax to add extra poignancy. Burnin’ Train, regardless of mighty Max Weinberg’s incendiary drumming, never reaches the climactic crescendo it seems destined for. But should this be his last record with the E-Street Band, then by way of the timeless warmth, reflective sentiments and sheer joy they exude, these 12 tracks provide an emotionally powerful full stop to a worthwhile story wonderfully told.

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