It’s fitting that the latest entry in Bruce Springsteen’s catalog, “Letter to You,” is being released in the middle of autumn, the one time each year we allow ourselves to marvel at the beauty of things coming to an end: summer, endless sunlight, and another year.
It truly is the only time on our collective calendars that we celebrate death, from the wondrous colors of leaves in the midst of their own demise, to the wandering souls and spirits of Halloween.
These are not the topics rock and roll music was conceived upon. Rather, rock and roll has always favored the celebration of endless excitement, life, and the everlasting now. But, now that rock and roll’s early architects have nearly all passed on, death and loss have become an integral part of its staying power and value.
On “Letter to You,” Bruce Springsteen calls upon his E Street Band to summon the ghosts of rock and roll past for one final celebration of their gifts, glory, and future. The result is an album that is surprisingly urgent and vital. It feels like a Bruce Springsteen album, the sound of a band playing with all of the wisdom of its years, as sonically fresh as it has ever sounded on record.
This is a testament to producer Ron Aniello, who has the band as loose in the studio as perhaps they’ve ever been, as well as Bob Clearmountain, whose mix allows you to really feel the room and space between the instruments.
“Letter to You” is Springsteen coming full circle with the band that helped make him famous, simultaneously looking back while creating space for his new work, and bringing new meaning to his relationship with his band, his music, and his fans.
His fans, that’s who this “letter” is for, after all. It’s a letter of thanks, continued dedication, and renewed passion to the millions of people who have helped sustain a career some fifty years burning down the road. And when Springsteen sings the chorus of the title track, he makes us feel as though we really are fellow travelers on his journey.
The album opens with a sort of prologue in “One Minute You’re Here,” setting the stage for the somewhat dark ride we are about to take. The song, like the album itself, is a lament on mortality and loss, but also a celebration of lives lived and those we carry with us. That “long black train” will one day come for us all; one minute we’re here, the next minute we’re gone.
The standout track on “Letter to You” is its third track, the genre-defying “Burning Train,” a song that mashes the driving intensity of Max Weinberg’s drums from “Candy’s Room” with the melody and atmosphere of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This is that great guitar song hardcore fans have been craving for years, featuring two blistering solos from The Boss.
During perhaps the briefest bridge in the history of recorded music, Bruce reaches for the very top of his vocal range with all of the power he can summon, sounding much more like the vocalist from “Human Touch” than the one from last year’s subpar “Western Stars.”
Where the undercooked “House of a Thousand Guitars” fails in its attempt to overtly communicate the theme of using art to upend hate, “Rainmaker” does so brilliantly. It is a big, stadium-worthy anthem that aims to kick the rainmaker on his orange ass, while also offering some sympathy for those who needed to “believe in something so bad” and were sold a bill of goods.
Springsteen has admitted he actually wrote this song during the Bush administration, but decided it made even more sense now. It does, the incredibly strong vocal suggesting it may have first been recorded for the “Wrecking Ball” album.
Still, it is not the oldest song on the album, not even close. “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans” were first written in 1972, ostensibly for Springsteen’s debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.”
Their inclusion on the record, and not the rumored “Tracks II,” helps to further contextualize the stories Springsteen is writing now. They are remarkably fresh and a complete joy to listen to, the result of an impossibly short four-day studio session on Bruce’s farm in Colts Neck, NJ. “Janey,” in particular, plays like a “Darkness on the Edge of Town” outtake in modern E Street glory, complete with Stevie Van Zandt’s signature harmonies, and Charlie Giordano channeling the late Danny Federici’s signature organ lines.
The album’s penultimate track, “Song for Orphans,” sounds like Bob Dylan and the Band live in 1965, and like some of the impressive, yet otherwise meaningless, wordplay in those perfect Bob Dylan albums from that era, it’s unclear whether the lyrics of “Orphans” truly mean anything at all. When Bruce sings, “Billy the Kid was a just a Bowery Boy who made a living twirling guns,” he could be offering a final ode to his youth, a bookend to his recorded career with the E Street Band, or perhaps nothing at all.
Easily the best E Street Band song he and his friends have recorded in more than a decade is the album’s second-single, and arguably most memorable, “Ghosts.” It sounds like something that would fit in perfectly on “The River,” the band firing on all cylinders live in the studio. There’s a familiar feeling throughout “Ghosts,” and its gospel outro it leads us out of the darkness of the previous songs of the record, as well as the loss within its own lyrics, to something a little closer to salvation.
By the time we get to the wistful “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” Springsteen reminds us, and maybe himself, that “death is not the end,” and that salvation may not look like we had once imagined. Perhaps, rather than salvation for ourselves, it’s the spirits of others we must protect. We carry these people, their stories, and their memories, in our hearts. They will live on, long after they’re gone, even if it’s only in our dreams.
Like 2009’s underappreciated “Working on a Dream,” an album which gains more resonance each year, “Letter to You” raises new introspection and wonder upon each listen. It’s why Bruce Springsteen remains as important and vital an artist at 71 years old as he has ever been. How many artists continue to inspire and demand our attention this late in the game? How many continue to dedicate themselves so intensely to their craft and the commitment they have made to themselves and their audience?
It’s why he wrote his letter to begin with.
We’re just lucky he chose to deliver it.