Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Springsteen’

’Twas a strange, saddening and maddening year, 2020. The world writ large flitted like a moth above a flame, its wings increasingly singed and brittle and unable to provide the lift needed to escape a fiery end. Too many people fell ill. Too many perished. Too many lost jobs. In decades to come, historians will undoubtedly study the whys and wherefores of the pandemic, including how it impacted almost every aspect of daily life. One hopes they’ll focus on more than just the death toll, politics and economic fallout, however, and celebrate the stuck-at-home troubadours – many facing hardship themselves – who bucked our spirits.

The biggest change within my realm arrived in mid-March, when – like many others – I began working from home, which it looks like I’ll be doing through next spring. Prior, much of my music listening occurred in the car, stereo blasting while I rode the 15/501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. Now? Aside from once-a-week grocery runs and the occasional doctor visit, it’s here in the den. Early on, I often pulled up the SiriusXM app on my phone and listened to E Street Radio for hours on end – or just played favorite albums. Part of that nostalgic indulgence hailed from the pre-pandemic life, to be honest, as last winter found me musing on the days that used to be even more than usual. From January through June, for example, I penned 17 entries in my Essentials series…but only three in the months since.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the flip switched.

I share that because music – as all art – is neither created nor experienced in a vacuum, though we sometimes tell ourselves different. The rush and crush of life colors our aspirations, perceptions and opinions, with – when it comes to us fans – tossed-off takes becoming gospel until, years later, we discover we were wrong. (Or not. Sometimes we were right all along.) Add to that this: I’m a 55-year-old, long-married white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my time but not a prisoner of it. (To borrow a lyric from Paul Simon, “I know what I know.”)

Such has been the case with my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year, at any rate. It’s an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom in 1978, when I was 13, for no other reason than…well, why not? It’s a fun, if occasionally frustrating endeavor to rank one’s favorites for the year. The selection process, then and now, is the same. As I explained in a long-ago Facebook post that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” I amended that, ever-so-slightly, last year: “The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.” (That said, I still buy a lot.)

The only real difference between then and now: The lobbying campaigns. Since I revealed the 25 top contenders last week, for instance, I’ve been deluged with emails and phone calls from their courtiers explaining why they should receive the OGC plaque. (Diane nudged me to choose her No. 1 as my No. 1, in other words. Though she shouldn’t have worried.)

And, with that…drumroll, please…here’s my Top 5 Albums of 2020 (links to my original reviews can be had by clicking on the titles):

1) Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. As I said above, Diane need not have worried. Springsteen’s studio reunion with the E Street Band is an album-long rumination on life, death and the ghosts that haunt the night – as well as the solace that only rock ’n’ roll can bring. As I summarized in my review, “It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.”

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. Simply put, this is a sterling treatise on heartache, heartbreak, forgiveness and moving on. From my review: “Often, such as with the hypnotic ‘Carnival Dream,’ the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating ‘Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in’ again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night.” I’d only add that Andrew Sarlo’s production is note-perfect.

3) Melody Gardot – Sunset in the Blue. As noted in my review, the album “finds the soft hues of the chanteuse’s heart lilting like a leaf lifted from the ground by a gentle breeze on an autumn afternoon.” And: “[W]ords alone can’t quantify the beauty inherent in Sunset in the Blue. My wife says she hears hints of Billie Holiday within some songs; that may be so, but most of all I hear Melody, her heart and her soul. The music stops time for me in a way few other releases have this year.”

4) Stone Foundation – Is Love Enough? From my review: “These are days of worry and fear, of not knowing whether or if ‘normal’ life will return, but these songs strip away those unsettling concerns, albeit for just under an hour. The Midlands-based band is providing much-needed sustenance to my weary soul, in other words, and in the best way possible. Their music, as I used to say on my old website, ‘takes you there, wherever there is.’” ‘Nuff said.  

5) Natalie Duncan – Free. Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements fuse together in hypnotic fashion in this delectable outing from the British singer-songwriter, who first turned my ears way back in 2012. As I noted upon its release, “With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack…the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.”

And, in alphabetical order, two honorable mentions:

Malin Pettersen – Wildhorse. I often feel instant kinship with an album or artist – it’s as if they’ve been with me forever and a day. Such is the case here. The atmospheric song cycle seamlessly blends the past, present and future of country music; and, when the album comes to an end, you’ll want to play it again – at least, that’s what I do.

Zach Phillips – The Wine of Youth. This album buoys my spirits every time I listen to it, which is quite often. From my review: “Stylistic shifts notwithstanding, the 13 tracks ebb and flow as one. At heart, it’s a literate singer-songwriter’s album that, to my ears, conjures the long-ago time when dollops of other genres were often mixed into tasty morsels. ‘It sounds like it’s from the 1970s,’ Diane said after hearing it earlier this week – and she meant it in the best way possible. To an extent, on this album at least, Phillips reminds me of another Illinois native who rose like a phoenix during that latter part of that decade and flew high during the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg.”

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 (if any) overdubs. As a result, 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.

Years long ago, making a long-distance phone call for any length of time required one to first take out a mortgage. I’m being a tad facetious, of course, but consider this: In 1974, the first three minutes cost about $12 and each minute thereafter set one back four bucks; in today’s money, in other words, a five-minute call clocked in at $105. (See this ArsTechnica article for more.) By 1987, the average price had fallen to just shy of 30 cents a minute (69 cents in today’s change), but “average” is just that, with high per-minute rates on weekdays and lower rates late at night and on weekends. As a result, for all but the rich, hearing the voices of far-away family and/or friends was generally saved for special occasions or emergencies.

(For those curious, this MEL article explains why long-distance calls were so expensive.)

Stationary, envelopes and stamps were the communications currency of the era, in other words. One scribbled. One thought. One reflected upon and shared recent events in one’s life, and sometimes connected them with long-ago transgressions and triumphs. Some letters were a page long, others 20, and depending upon one’s scrawl, some words could be confused for others…or only understood in the context of the words that surrounded them. Things began to shift in the ‘90s with the mass embrace of, first, online services like AOL and Prodigy and, eventually, the Internet, email, instant messaging and Facebook.

Which is to say, these days, it’s a rarity to send or receive a letter.

Those are my first thoughts upon listening to “Letter to You,” the title track – and first single from – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s forthcoming album, which is slated for an Oct. 23rd release. It harkens back to a simpler age in both sound and style.

“I love the emotional nature of Letter To You,” says Bruce in the album’s announcement, which was shared on Thursday Sept. 10th. “And I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”

My second thought: Bruce never articulates what exactly he “found out through hard times and good.” His lyrics sum up the letter without revealing its contents; instead, he trades in the broadest of metaphoric strokes: “I took all the sunshine and rain/all my happiness and all my pain/the dark evening stars and morning sky of blue/and I sent it in my letter to you.” (In some respects, the song could well be a harder-rockin’ spin-off of “Hello Sunshine.”)

My third thought: the letter’s intended recipient is his younger self. Such letters are a part of some psychological therapies, after all, helping those who write them to either come to terms with or overcome long-ago issues and anguish.

My fourth thought: the letter isn’t meant for his younger self, but his long-departed father and/or his mom, who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a way for him to communicate with them, still.

My fifth thought: Who the letter is to or what it contains doesn’t much matter. The guitars are great and drive the song, Mighty Max lays down a big beat, and Roy Bittan’s piano accents the proceedings like occasional drops of rain on an overcast day. The only thing missing: Clarence’s saxophone. That absence echoes the melancholia that underpins the song, I think.

My sixth and final thought: Damn COVID-19. My hunch is that Bruce and the E Street Band would have been launching an arena tour not long after the album’s release, with this song kicking off every night. Now? I have doubts about whether they’ll collectively set foot on a stage again.

Last weekend, yesterday and again this morning, I played the latest installment of Bruce Springsteen’s Live Series, Stripped Down. It features acoustic renditions of 15 songs, from “Dancing in the Dark” at Neil Young’s 1986 Bridge Benefit in Mountain View, Cal., to “Empty Sky” from the final stop of the 2005 Devils & Dust tour in Trenton. Unlike the archival concert releases available on brucespringsteen.net, the compilations can be streamed from the usual suspects – in my case, Apple Music, but for those who eschew the subscription services, it’s also available (with commercials) via YouTube.

As one might expect, it’s a sterling set accented by songs that still resonate despite some – in theory, at least – being long past their expiration dates. The tales of tough times in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as depicted with a novelist’s eye in “Seeds,” “Youngstown” and “The River,” are not dusty remnants of a bygone era, in other words, though some may initially hear them that way. As Springsteen sings in “Wrecking Ball,” “hard times come, and hard times go/yeah, just to come again” – and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, tough times are back yet again.

“Youngstown,” to my ears, is the album’s pièce de résistance. Originally released on The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, it examines the corrosion of manufacturing jobs in what’s now known as the Rust Belt: “From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range/To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name…” It’s a detached, matter-of-fact portrayal of a working man whose way of life has been dispatched by the closing of a factory.

In any event, there’s little negative I can say about the live compilation except for this: None of the songs were recorded in Philadelphia, the city that championed Bruce first. C’est la vie. If you have Apple Music or Spotify, or access to YouTube, give it a listen – you won’t be disappointed.

The song list: