For the first decade of his career, Bruce Springsteen was almost an anti-commercial rock star, refusing appearances on television and lucrative licence deals for commercials; he avoided being airbrushed, selecting a bleak photo of himself for album Darkness on the Edge of Town. His philosophy was about living in the moment spontaneously, “put your foot to the floor and darling don’t look back”, he sang in 1977. The monster success of Born in the USA in 1984 may have caused a change in approach (Live 1975-1985 was quickly released, with advance orders of more than one and a half million copies), but there also seemed to be a shift in gear with the commercial push around Greatest Hits in 1995 and Tracks in 1998. Fans grumbled over the song selection for Greatest Hits and the re-recorded parts on outtakes for Tracks. However it was probably not so much a case of “selling out” as Springsteen ensuring his own history was presented to the public in a particular way; the attitude had perhaps changed from “bootleggers, roll your tapes” to “bootleggers, cease and desist”.
Springsteen is now in his ‘70s and his career over the last few years has mostly had a retrospective focus with his autobiography “Born to Run” and stage show “Springsteen on Broadway”. Both of these had accompanying albums (the book had a “companion piece” album, Chapter and Verse, as well as an audiobook and the Broadway show had a CD/vinyl release) There has also been an ongoing release of live “archive” shows for download, and there is even a Springsteen emoji.
Springsteen’s critical stock and public appeal (excluding those Trump supporters who would like Springsteen to move to Australia) is undoubtable, to the extent that he can almost do no wrong. If he released an avant-garde atrocity like Metal Machine Music it would probably still be greatly acclaimed, but this is hardly his fault; he is deservedly a much loved character, so it can be difficult to approach his work with neutrality.
The increased willingness to take stock of the past is generally good news for Springsteen fans, and there is new material being released alongside historic archive releases; by all accounts Springsteen is a busy man always working on projects. His last album, 2019’s Western Stars, was a collection of charmingly orchestrated vignettes and was generally well received; this was quickly followed by a film performance of the songs and accompanying soundtrack.
Letter to You also has an accompanying film on Apple TV, but it’s an entirely different beast from Western Stars: it’s an E Street album, and a major event in the music world. As such it comes with its’ own backstory: in essence (you will be able to find the full details elsewhere), following the death of George Theiss in 2018, Springsteen realises he is now the only surviving member of the Castiles (one of his early bands). With this in mind, on a guitar given to him by a fan, Springsteen writes a new album in April 2019 focussed on the meta subject of music itself. Instead of recording the songs as demos, Springsteen enlists the E Street Band to play the new songs live in the studio in November 2019, with self-imposed time restrictions.
This is therefore a return to what a lot of Springsteen fans clamour for – a full blown Springsteen rock album with (mostly) new material, at almost always full volume and maximum pace. The only more subdued tracks are the “preface” opener, “One Minute You’re Here” and the “prologue” closer “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, both focussed on the album’s main theme – survivorship.
With its’ warm intimate vocal and wide country imagery, “One Minute You’re Here” could easily fit on The Ghost of Tom Joad or Devils & Dust and can be considered as a transitional link from Western Stars. Springsteen lightly sings that “one minute you’re here, one minute you’re gone”, but this is in fact a heavy message of doom, as the big black train coming down the tracks is the antithesis of the rock and roll dream of immortality. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is a more uplifting epic ensemble in the style of “Land of Hope and Dreams”, a direct address to the dead but not forgotten.
What is particularly interesting to long term fans about Letter to You is that Springsteen returns to three early ‘70s songs already known to collectors and has re-recorded them fifty years on. For a prolific songwriter like Springsteen this is puzzling at first – why return to old material? According to Rolling Stone magazine, he decided to record these songs again simply “to be able to go back and sing in your adult voice but with ideas of your youth”. These three tracks are “Janey Needs a Shooter”, “If I Was The Priest” and “Song for Orphans”.
“Janey Needs a Shooter” has a long history to it, with several different recordings previously circulating; it started life in 1973 as a publishing demo, and was included in early track listings for The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run, and it was reconsidered for inclusion on The River. Warren Zevon was so intrigued by the title that he wrote his own version and renamed it “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” for his 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.
“If I Was The Priest” was an early Springsteen audition demo and recorded by Allan Clarke as “If I Were The Priest”. “Song for Orphans” was also an early ‘70s Springsteen demo, and again a candidate for the The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run. Springsteen performed it irregularly during the tour for Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and twice for the Devils and Dust tour in 2005.
As Springsteen has pointed out to Rolling Stone magazine, the lyrics for these songs are “completely crazy”, however, his instinct to re-record them was correct – it’s interesting to hear an older man sing what are youthful, adventurous songs, and they benefit from being played by experienced musicians (the early ‘70s E Street Band played with some eccentricity). These new versions are all rendered with force, and this works particularly well for the whirling trouble of “Janey Needs a Shooter”, which is transformed by being an electric version.
Of the three, “Song for Orphans” is probably the most-wordy, but seems particularly well suited for an older voice and powerful band. Listening to this track, it’s easy to see why Springsteen was labelled a “New Dylan” along with John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and Elliott Murphy, but the song is still original enough for any similarity in style not to be a distraction. Springsteen and the band tackle “If I Was The Priest” with a breezy approach, and it suits the Western imagery for it to be set in a large expansive sound compared to the original demo. At times Springsteen’s intonation and phrasing is positively Dylan-ish, but this is no bad thing.
The new tracks released in anticipation of the album, “Letter to You” and “Ghosts”, are both fine songs. “Letter to You” serves not only as a letter to a friend or lover, but also to listeners and has some distinctive singing from Springsteen (apparently all first take vocals were used) with an emphatic phrasing of the chorus and an idiosyncratic semi-bark which sticks in the head. “Ghosts” is a rousing tribute to band life, so that “by the end of the set we leave no one alive”. This could seem overwrought to detractors, but the recording shows remarkable verve and energy for veteran performers, and the sentiment is clearly well-intentioned.
Similarly heartfelt is “Last Man Standing”, inspired by Springsteen’s realisation that he is the only member left alive of the Castiles. It’s a wistful look back with an evocative arrangement, complete with a sweeping sax solo. Springsteen recalls being “hard and young and proud”, and the snakeskin vests, sharkskin suits and cuban heels are reminiscent of his ‘70s classic “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City”.
For Springsteen followers there will be a sense of welcome familiarity with some of the concerns or, styles on the album: “The Power of Prayer” is an E Street take on soul, complete with reference to Ben E. King and a melodic piano intro which looks back to the early Springsteen albums; “House of a Thousand Guitars” sounds like a revamp of “Born to Run” with its’ ringing guitar line and emotive vocal; “Burnin Train” with its’ driving guitar is reminiscent in sound to some of Springsteen’s LA work in the ‘90s, and returns to a Springsteen favourite, biblical imagery; “Rainmaker” expresses angst over putting one’s trust in the wrong person, political salesman or otherwise. To a certain extent one of Springsteen’s particular skills has always been synthesizing his influences and making them his own; here he is not so much recycling, as reconstructing his many musical achievements over the course of his long career.
With emphasis on the past and time being short, Letter to You risks being maudlin or at least slightly depressing, and it could be considered that this is a letter of resignation from the Boss. However, the energetic spirit of this album suggests Springsteen still has much to contribute, and that he doesn’t intend checking out anytime soon.
Release Date: 23 OCT 2020