On his 20th studio album, Letter to You, Bruce Springsteen returns to his visceral classic sound. Reuniting the E Street Band and recording the album in just four days, the spontaneity of their live shows shines through the recording in the form of searing guitar lines and pounding drums. The band feels like a well-oiled machine let loose, though not without an awareness of their age. At 71, Springsteen explores lost friends and the weight of his own journey, taking stock at a time when the world has ground to a halt. Letter to You is a celebration of a career, of a life, displaying the best of Springsteen’s sound without breaking new ground.
The clear stand out moments of the album come from three songs that had been written in the 70s and re-recorded. ‘If I Were a Priest’ shows the very best of Springsteen’s song-writing, exploring the yearnings of a young man to break free. His early style is apparent in ‘Janey Needs a Shooter’ and ‘Songs for Orphans,’ with their dense, Dylan-esque lyrics, but adapted to fit the sound of the album through the powerful depth of the band’s sound.
The rest of the album flitters between retrospection and classic Springsteen tropes, executed with varying success. ‘Ghosts’ is a forceful anthem about the death of an old friend and band member, celebrating how his life – and that of others – remains within Springsteen’s music. The blistering and sharp ‘Burning Train’ is reminiscent of his work on Born to Run and The River, with wailing guitars set to a driving beat. ‘Last Man Standing’ reflects on the loss of his bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, although the iconic sound of Clemons’ saxophone lives on in the song, performed by his nephew Jake. These songs are bursting to be played live (who knows when that will be), and will not doubt be elevated by Springsteen’s famous energy on stage.
Though not as overtly political as previous albums, it seems no coincidence that Letter to You was released just before the American presidential election. On the gutsy song ‘Rainmaker’, Springsteen jabs at Donald Trump as he sings about a con man, while also being more insightful, with the line ‘Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad’.
The band showcase their enduring talents, but perhaps the weakness of the album is its simplicity, relying a bit too heavily on the basics of Springsteen’s song-writing. ‘House of a Thousand Guitars’ falls flat, sounding cliched and predictable in its simple repeated melody. The retrospection of the album can sometimes come across as a rehashing of old ideas, with references to trains and the edge of town being staples of his lyrics. In this sense, the album will appeal more to Springsteen’s fans rather than attracting many new followers. But that’s OK. Letter to You may not be innovative, but it is still a brilliant reminder of the quality of Bruce Springsteen’s signature sound.
Image: Colombia Records