Bruce Springsteen (photo by Danny Clinch, PR)
Letter to You
It’s always an event when Bruce Springsteen issues a new album and over the past twenty years, new albums from the Boss also meant different styles, unique concepts and even different bands.
Just consider the variations in The Rising, Devils & Dust, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Wrecking Ball, High Hopes and Western Stars. But Springsteen’s brand new long player, Letter to You, seems to bring it all back home, not by taking familiar paths, but by following routes rarely travelled. The journey is different, but the destination is warmly familiar.
Excluding all of his live albums, compilations and other special releases, like last year’s Western Stars - Songs from the Film and 2018’s live document of his stage show, Springsteen on Broadway, Letter to You is Springsteen’s 20th studio album and the first studio album from Springsteen and the E Street Band since High Hopes, released six years ago.
For this latest effort, Springsteen called the E Street Band — Roy Bittan (piano, vocals), Jake Clemons (saxophone), Charles Giordano (organ, vocals), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Patti Scialfa (vocals), Garry Tallent (bass, vocals), Steven VanZandt (guitar, vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums, vocals) — into his home studio, Thrill Hill Recording in Colts Neck, New Jersey. They gathered in November 2019 with the plan of recording an album, live in the studio, with an absolute minimum of overdubs. The goal was to do this in five days. With Springsteen and Ron Aniello producing, the sessions wrapped up in just four.
Springsteen explained to Rolling Stone that Letter to You is “the only album where it’s the entire band playing at one time, with all the vocals and everything completely live.”
This approach is only one reason why the new album sounds so vibrant and alive. The other is that the songs on Letter to You were never demoed and they possess a freshness as a result of this decision. Instead of committing his new compositions to tape as demos, Springsteen presented his new songs to the band in person, in the studio. It was then in the musicians' hands to make Letter to You an E Street Band creation.
Before the seeds of Letter to You were even planted, Springsteen realized that he hadn’t written material with the E Street Band in mind for some time. But in the months following the December 2018 closing of his historic Springsteen on Broadway concert residency, Springsteen’s muse began to stir and in the spring of 2019, his pen grew active. The loss of E Street Band stalwarts Danny Federici in 2008 and Clarence Clemons in 2011, as well as the passing of longtime friend and teenage bandmate, George Theiss, two years ago, resonated loudly inside Springsteen. This forced him to face his own mortality.
In the autobiographical song “Last Man Standing,” Springsteen references the Castiles, the late-1960s bar band that both Springsteen and Theiss were part of. Elsewhere, on the fist-pumping anthem “Ghosts," “One Minute You’re Here,” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” Springsteen faces the spirits of lost friends knowing he will be reunited with them one day in the not-to-distant future.
Letter to You also allows Springsteen to touch on the experience of being part of a band, a unique subject matter for the Boss to address in song. It’s all summed up in the title track, which compares his entire career as being a letter to fans. Three of the songs Springsteen chose to record date back to before his 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. These songs — “If I Was the Priest,” “Janey Needs a Shooter” and the Dylanesque “Song for Orphans” — were tunes offered to John Hammond in 1972 when Hammond, then head of Columbia Records, was about to sign Springsteen. (“Janey Needs A Shooter” was Warren Zevon’s inspiration for his own “Jeannie Needs A Shooter" and “If I Was The Priest” was recorded by Allan Clarke, formerly of the Hollies, for the 1997 tribute album, One Step Up/Two Steps Back: The Songs Of Bruce Springsteen.)
Springsteen explained to Rolling Stone that the inclusion of these recently rediscovered songs from his archive was because he wanted to hear the band play them now, “to be able to go back and sing in your adult voice but with ideas of your youth ... It was kind of insane fun, because the lyrics for all those songs were so completely crazy.”
Letter to You starts slowly and intimately, with the aforementioned acoustic “One Minute You’re Here.” Then the big and bold sound of the Boss fills every crevasse with a rock and roll energy that only the E Street Band can create.
Letter to You will be accompanied by a film by Thom Zimny about the making of the album.
It’s been 47 years since Springsteen’s first two albums were released, yet Letter to You is one of the most E Street Band sounding albums in his catalog. And when you are talking about a catalog dotted with iconic albums like Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A., it’s dangerous to say that album twenty ranks up there, but the fact is Letter to You comfortably continues the vibes of Springsteen’s great works.