At the turn of the century, following the tragedy of 9/11 and the final months preceding a two-decade long American war on terror, Bruce Springsteen was one of the faces of the cultural recovery stateside, famously performing ‘My City Of Ruins’ and the first performer seen on the televised 9/11 benefit. Bruce’s music, often both an endearing testament to American character and an open examination of the crumbling social mechanisms that hold up US society, has primarily been a soundtrack to it’s successes, and a rallying cry in the face of its struggles.
That is no different in 2020, in a year where humanity inside and outside the country Springsteen calls home appears to be coming apart at the seams and right on time, Bruce has taken fans and listeners on a well-needed detour through E Street. Letter To You is Springsteen’s 20th album, and is a victorious, heartfelt and frankly astonishing achievement given the length of a career that has already sprawled five decades.
‘One Minute You’re Here’, opens the album; a Nebraska-esque, country jaunt that features the classic Springsteen technique of The Boss changing chords on closing syllables for effect while the E Street band offer warmth and well-mixed support behind.
Lead single and first true introduction of the ‘E Street Sound’ arrives with lead single and title track – the combination of the organ, piano, strumming guitar and Springsteen’s emotive commentary are simultaneously refreshing and reassuring, like settling into a comfortable sofa or putting on a childhood film after a tough day.
Alongside the musical mechanisms of Springsteen’s sound making a welcome return, lyrically we are re-introduced to classic Bruce motifs and themes. ‘Burning Train’ is one such track, following ‘’Letter To You’ with a classic transport metaphor, the Christmas of the bells and a vocal melody that has a cadence reminiscent of Springsteen’s 90’s styles - while guitarist (and also solo artist with his own right) Steve Van Zandt’s fingerprints (and vocal chords) are seemingly emanating through the track too.
The highlights, unsurprisingly, are the renewed and re-animated versions of songs Springsteen wrote prior to his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park in 1973. ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’ is a slow-burning ballad with a soaring chorus and a well-timed reminder of Bruce’s astonishing song writing from 1970-1988. Fans will also be pleased to hear a return of a harmonica solo that is a powerful tool that displays some of the best of Bruce; a sound that is both raw and endearing, human and powerful. The band’s performances, captured live in studio, give an authenticity that suits the songs, harking back to a more spartan day.
‘Power of Prayer’ and ‘House of a Thousand Guitars’ follow, with a starring role from pianist Roy Bittan, who reaches back into his chord-books from Racing In The Street to sashay notes in between movie-score sax melodies and expansive lyrical mantras – a writing style that is at times a joyous trip down memory lane.
However, Springsteen’s youth is on display in rambunctious number ‘Rainmaker’, a song that can be interpreted politically as Bruce references the abundance of faith put into liars while ‘the house is on fire’. Discourse aside, both band and leader appear 20 years their junior on a pounding number that is similar in style to songs from 2001’s acclaimed The Rising.
Album highlight is ‘If I Were A Priest’, a 1970’s composition that was covered by Allan Clarke and is brought into HD and full surround sound in 2020. The song has an immediately capturing and compelling story-telling opening and combines the warmth and humour that is contained within much of Bruce’s finest work, later enveloping into a full-scale epic that is crying out for a vintage Springsteen live performance.
This is mirrored by ‘Song For Orphans’, beginning with a harmonica laden tenor and fading chord sequence, Springsteen hitting the 1970’s vein and pumping classic sounds through a 2020 lens that serves as a tribute to E Street’s past, present and future.
In fact, the songs that are embedded throughout the album ensure that the lead singles actually sound ordinary in comparison but are still testaments to Springsteen’s eternal appeal - the appointed voice of a sadly waning set of cultural ideals and images. It is on his revamps of previously unreleased material that shine through, conveying both his cavernous treasure chest of impactful songs as well as his unrelenting hunger to give every song it’s day, someday.
‘Letter To You’ concludes with the uplifting ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, a final thought on the inevitability of a life well into it’s twilight before a guitar-organ combination that still strikes as hard and illuminates the message as any a Springsteen number may have done in his 70’s and 80’s heyday.
At it’s best, Bruce Springsteen’s 20th album is a guided tour through different eras and styles attributed to one of the world’s greatest songwriters. It is incredible that music can be this heartfelt from a man who has already spent 50 years seemingly exploring every alleyway of his soul for light to point at the American experience. It appears that after half a century, there is still more than enough left.
Letter To You is released October 23rd via Columbia Records.