Death has been much on the mind of near everyone these past seven months. How could it not? As a result, although recorded pre-pandemic, the new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letters to You, is in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. The ghosts of lost friends haunt some of the 12 tracks, while Springsteen contemplates his mortality on others. He also rejoices in the days that used to be via three cast-off songs of yore. As a whole, the album explores the same basic themes that accented last year’s Western Stars LP and Western Stars movie, but trades the pop gloss for the glorious cacophony that is rock ’n’ roll.
“One Minute You’re Here,” the first song, is not raucous, however, but a stark rumination about the dark clouds gathered in his soul: “I thought I knew just who I was/And what I’d do, but I was wrong/One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” It’s not a sentiment unique to him, of course, yet those of us who long ago grabbed our tickets and suitcases and boarded his train to the land of hope and dreams may well hear ourselves in the lyrics.
The first single, “Letter to You,” ups the tempo, with electric guitars and an organ rising, falling and rising again like waves in rough water. Bruce has said the song is directed to us, his fans, but it matters not, really. It’s just a great song. His oft-used locomotive and religious metaphors continue with “Burnin’ Train,” with the band barreling down the long twin silver line.
“Janey Needs a Shooter,” one of the cast-off songs mentioned above, is next; like the other two, “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans”, it dates to the early 1970s and sports a tangible Bob Dylan vibe. (It was reworked as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by Warren Zevon and Bruce for Zevon’s 1979 Bad Luck Streak at a Dancing School album.)
There are other sonic ghosts, too. “Last Man Standing” finds Bruce recalling his first band, the Castiles. The initial song written for what became this album, it was influenced by the passing of former Castiles bandmate George Theiss and the realization that he was the last group member alive. (Though, best I can tell, there are a few short-term members still walking.) In spots, at least to my ears, it conjures the Drifters’ “On Broadway” – especially when Jake Clemons takes a sax solo.
In similar fashion, the piano intro to “House of a Thousand Guitars” conjures another song: “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” (Listen to both back to back for proof.) That said, it’s a great song about the salvation inherent in rock ’n’ roll: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/We’ll go where the music never ends/From the stadiums to the small town bars/We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars…”
“Ghosts,” the second single, is yet another killer track from the album, this one also inspired by the passing of Theiss: “I hear the sound of your guitar/Comin’ from the mystic far/Stone and the gravel in your voice/Come in my dreams and I rejoice….” Another ghost rises from the grooves by song’s end: the late Michael Been, as the outro conjures the Call’s “When the Walls Came Down.”
Sonically speaking, the E Street Band sounds huge; to borrow Bruce’s penchant for train metaphors, they’re often like a mammoth locomotive rolling faster and faster down the tracks, except that when they need to stop, they stop on a dime. There’s also something of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse ethos throughout, as it was primarily recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs. The result marries Born to Run’s Wall of Sound (in this case, a tsunami of guitars) with Darkness on the Edge of Town’s straight-ahead attack. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.