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Bruce Springsteen - 'Letter To You' Album Review


I'll admit, I'd written a review of this, then I watched an interview between Bruce and Zane Lowe and I knew I had to start again. The interview reminded me of the depths that this album mines and connects. So here I go, hopefully putting the right words down this time.

We've never needed an album by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band more. In a world that seems to be unravelling at an unnerving pace, when we're being led by governments that want nothing more than to line their own pockets, when a worldwide viral pandemic can cause people to become divided over truth and fake news with the dumbest shouting the loudest, we need something to stand and give us light and hope while reflecting on our frail mortality as individuals and as a species.

"Letter To You" is everything you could want from Bruce bringing the band back together. It is a greasy, grimy workhorse of an album. The album came together in a five day studio stint towards the end of last year (four days recording and the last day spent listening back). The songs come from live takes with each one given three hours before they moved on, with minimal overdubs too which shows how deep their musical symbiosis runs.

The album surprises you by opening with the quietest song on the album. A finger picked refrain runs though 'One Minute You're Here' as Springsteen sets out the album's themes. He draws a lot from themes of mortality, acknowledging that our time here is finite as our companions and loves move on. The band slowly bring themselves into the mix, wary that they may upset the fragile balance that our lives create. It sounds more like it's stepped from the "Western Stars" sessions and it acts almost like a coda to that period while priming us for what is yet to come.

The title track features the signature E Street Band sound that they're famed for. It's so strange to think that a letter seems like such an unusual concept now in a world that demands instant gratification. Bruce is looking deep into himself and sharing his strengths and weaknesses to the letters recipient in a song that’s designed to be played live and loud. The same is to be found with ‘Burnin' Train’. The band tear along the tracks, Max Weinburg stokes the coals of the engine, locking into the beat and rhythm with bassist Garry Tallent.

There are themes that run through all the songs. Springsteen is taking stock of his world, looking back on it all. In the past few years he has been focused on an autobiography as well as a successful Broadway stage show, album and Netflix special so you would expect this to cast a shadow across the album. It seems fitting that Bruce has pulled three previously unrecorded songs from his back pocket. The first 'Janey's Needs A Shooter' opens with the swell of Roy Bittan's keys in a such a way that you're immediately taken from wherever you are to some dive bar along the Jersey shore somewhere, perched on a stool with a beer in your hand. It's a song that you know would work perfectly but it really needs the groove that only the E Street Band can provide.

‘Last Man Standing’ really taps into the band's history and legacy with Bruce looking back at his legacy playing night after night, honing his craft. Then there's that thunderbolt sound of a saxophone, something that's been screaming loudly with its absence. There’s nobody in this dimension (or any other for that matter) who could replace the legendry Clarence Clemons, a figure synonymous with Springsteen's sound. So, when that lead sax breaks you get goosebumps, you get that punch to your gut that drives the air from your lungs. Jake Clemons plays his instrument in such a way you feel the connection he has with his late uncle, standing partly in his shadow while still forging on in his own way. Jake manages to make you miss the big man while reminding you that his legacy will continue through the music.

‘The Power Of Prayer’ harnesses the E Street magic and delivers that familiar hymn that drives us further on down the road. There's a gospel feel as Springsteen leads us in his church. ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ is reverential, a tale of how music provides us what we need from our lives. There's a gospel feel as Springsteen reminds us that music forms our soundtrack, no matter what is going on around us. It's the fire in our belly when we need to be angry, our shelter from the storm, our salve when we hurt and are in pain. It’s a song from the darkest edge of town, a song that is pivotal for the album working perfectly to remind us exactly why we listen to an artist like Bruce.

‘Rainmaker’ has a great chorus that's best sung out loud surrounded by a few other thousand people, your first pumping the air with every snap of the snare, the foil to the sedate verses. ‘If I Was A Priest’ uses western (as in cowboy) metaphors to invoke a tale of the past while still managing to remind us of the modern world around us.

The guitars of The Boss, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofrgren drive ‘Ghosts’ along that, again, screams loudly that it needs to be played loud and live. It’s an anthem for every band out there, every musician that has dragged themselves onstage in the name to entertain, and the sacrifices they make along the way. It’s the celebration of the thrill of standing up and facing your nerves down, backed by your friends and ready to take on the world. If there was ever a song missing from the back catalogue of The Heartbreakers it would be ‘Song For Orphans’. If you close your eyes tightly and let your mind and soul drift away you can imagine Tom Petty smiling that knowing grin of his, nodding along as his friends tips a musical hat to his legacy.

With an album of this calibre you need a song like ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ to close it. Again, Springsteen and the band can remind us that loss doesn’t always have to be mournful. It seems all the more pertinent in our current situation that we need to remind ourselves that life is for living, not regretting.

“Letter To You” is the sound of one of the greatest bands in the world backing one of the finest songwriters to grace the graft. It sounds full and vibrant but has the ability to stun you when it’s needed. It is reflective without being mournful, celebratory without being disrespectful. There have been times that I’ve listened to this album with a lump in my throat, there have been times when I’ve been misty eyed, but there have been so many times when I’ve listened and been lifted. We may have never realised what we needed right now was the healing power of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, but I’m thankful that they’re here to help shine a light in our troubled times.

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Review - Scott Hamilton


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