Springsteen Brings E Street Band Full Circle with Letter to You (Album Review #24)

Bruce Springsteen 'Letter to You' released today, album out in October

Getting to know Bruce early on

When we were first getting to know Bruce Springsteen, we learned about what life was, and had been, like for a young rock and roller growing up and dealing with the blue collar constraints of New Jersey.

Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey (1973) gave us the aptly titled “Growin’ Up” and the angst-filled love song “For You,” along with seven other tracks fitting of a young man trying to break out and make a name for himself. A lot of the stuff that went into Greetings was based on the feelings of a young man.

The Wild, the Innocent, the E Street Shuffle, released later that same year, delved more deeply into setting, with songs like “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” being based on life in the borrowed hometown mentioned in the title of his debut album, as well as others that were based on the mecca that waited just beyond, in “New York City Serenade.”

Born to Run (1975), Springsteen’s third album, delved deeper into the struggle of youthful rock and roll angst and life on the streets of the city, with quintessential tracks like “Jungleland,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and “Backstreets.” Even more than that, the disk instilled this dream of getting out, breaking out, and leaving here for anywhere else, in its megahit title track and “Thunder Road.”

With those three albums, we came to know Springsteen, who was still only 25. We knew where he’d come from, where he was, and that he wanted to go somewhere else.

Born to Run being the huge success that it was, Bruce’s career took off in a way that maybe he couldn’t have imagined, and he’s been able to go anywhere and everywhere he wanted, and now he’s back home, and it’s all come full circle.

The Trajectory of Early Success

That angst-ridden young man has lived out his dreams, traveled the world, and gained multitudes of adoring fans…and hopefully he has begun to lay to rest some of the demons.

He has also laid to rest some friends. Long-time friend and right hand man, Terry Magovern, died in 2007, and E Street organist, Danny Federici, passed in 2008. The most notable E Street death, however, came with the passing of “the biggest man in the world,” Clarence Clemons, “a man who needs no introduction,” in 2011.

So, it’s only fitting that Springsteen, now 71, a man who once looked forward at what all was to come and where all there was to go, now looks back at what all has been and those who were here and have gone on ahead.

Where he is today, with the release of album number 20

Letter To You is Springsteen’s 20th album, and his introspection has him and his E Street Band in fittingly classic form.

They recorded the album in classic style, meeting at Bruce’s New Jersey ranch for five days of recording–they were done in four–late last year. They rehearsed the songs and recorded live in the studio with almost no overdubs, recording songs in a way that they hadn’t done since 1984’s Born in the USA.

The result is impressive. The album is exactly what long time fans of Bruce and E Street wanted.

My tepid initial response

I wasn’t sure if that was going to be the case for me from the start, however. In fact, after the first listening, I found myself disappointed. I was looking for the band to release a rock and roll album in classic E Street style, but, even though they have, my initial impression was that they had not done that.

There are a number of reasons for that. It begins with the first song, “One Minute You’re Here,” an acoustic ballad that would have fit 1988’s Tunnel of Love well.” That set the tone for me, and, while this isn’t a down tempo album, I got the impression that it is.

The next song that gave me this impression was “House of 1000 Guitars.” Having read the playlist, it was one of the titles that I held out the most promise for, and it wasn’t as heavy as I’d anticipated. I was also influenced by the album’s previously released second single, “Ghosts.” “Ghosts” is a flat-out rocker, and it gave me hope that the rest of the album might sound like that.

It turns out that “Ghosts” is the hardest number on the album, but, while the rest of the album doesn’t rock as hard, it’s nowhere near the down tempo collection my mind made it out to be after that first listening.

I began to recognize its rocking nature the second time through, and by the end of my third listening I was hooked.

Yes, there are more than a few mid tempo songs here, but tempo is not what drives this record. The sounds of E Street drive this record, and the sounds of E Street go beyond the the constraints of tempo.

What it sounds like down on E Street

And what are the sounds of E Street? Well, it’s a four-guitar band (Springsteen is joined by fellow guitarists, wife Patti Scialfa, Stephen Van Zant, and Nils Lofgren), so guitar is of primary importance to everything the band does. Then, of course, you have the saxophone. As mentioned, long-time saxophonist and Bruce’s on-stage foil, Clarence Clemons, is gone, one of those Bruce writes about in songs like “Ghosts” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams. He has been replaced by his nephew Jake Clemons, whose presence is every bit the sound of E Street on tracks like “The Power of Prayer” and “Last Man Standing.”

Mighty Max Weinberg sets the foundation with his solid and steady drum play, just as he has on every E Street Band album since Born to Run. And then there’s Garry W. Tallent, bass in hand and riding the beats just as solidly and dependably as he has been doing all the way back to Bruce’s 1973 debut.

And then you have the keyboards. “Professor” Roy Bittan on piano and Charlie Giordano, who made the jump over from Springsteen’s “The Sessions Band” to replace Federici, mans the organ. And, yes, while it is a guitar band, listening to this album leaves little doubt that the sounds of E Street, the tones of E Street, are carried along on the keys.

The relationship that Bittan’s piano has to Bruce’s music is so strong that he was the only member of the E Street Band (aside from anyone who is married to him) to stay on and be a member of “The Other Band,” as has been dubbed the group that Bruce assembled to record his simultaneously released 1992 albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town.

The relationship that the Hammond organ has to the sounds of E Street, whether it be founding member David Sancious, Federici, or Giordano, is unmistakable. Just like Forrest would say, they’re “like peas and carrots.” When the sounds of E Street are exalted, they are usually so on the tones of a Hammond organ. That is the case here.

And what does it sound like this time around?

For me, answering that question is easy. It sounds like what E Street is supposed to sound like. It’s sounds like what you’d hope for it to sound like. It’s excellent. It’s classic. And, as it needs to be, it’s timeless.

As my words show, time is such an important factor in this album. These are young rockers, who have grown into rockers who aren’t that young anymore. They’re still those same kids who had the hopes, dreams, and aspirations, but just a little older and looking at things from closer to the other end of the clock.

They’ve had those hopes, dreams, and aspirations answered and lived to see which answers gave them all they had hoped for and which ones were just the silly musings of youthful wishing. They’ve loved and lost, and they understand all too well that each of us is mortal.

These are the things they brought with them to northern New Jersey late last year and what they hoped to convey to us, those fans and friends who have made it possible for them to travel the roads they’ve traveled. Indeed, this is Bruce’s letter to us, a letter of thanks in which he hopes to tell us all that we’ve meant to him throughout the nearly 50 years of our association.

In this letter, he tells us that he put “all [his] fears and doubt…all the things that [he] found out…[and] all that [he] found true.” He is undoubtedly referring somewhat to the title track that these lyrics come from, but I get the impression that the “letter” he speaks of might be the complete lexicon of his lyrics across those 20 albums.

He speaks not only to us, but to those who have passed, whom we mentioned earlier. In the song “Ghosts,” which might be the most romantic track on an incredibly romantic album, he writes about hearing “the sound of your guitar coming from the mystic far” and the “boots and the spurs you used to ride click down the hall but never arrive.”

Those of us who’ve lived long enough to know the sting of death and the loss of those we love recognize how the small things are often what remind us of them.

The autobiographical track, “Last Man Standing,” is inspired by the death that initially led Bruce to write this collection of songs, that of George Theiss. George was Bruce’s bandmate in his his first band, The Castiles, and when George died in the summer of 2018 Bruce was the only member of the band left. “Last Man Standing” became the first track Bruce wrote for this record, and its introspection sets the tone for the rest of the album.

Aside from the songs previously mentioned, other standouts among the album’s new tracks include, “The Power of Prayer,” “House of 1000 Guitars,” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” all of which are mid-tempo rockers that fit the E Street catalog well.

And what of these three old songs you may have heard about?

I note that these last are three of the album’s “new” tracks, but that is not to say that the album contains previously released material. It does not. It does, however, contain new versions of three old songs. It contains new versions of three very old songs, in fact.

“If I Was the Priest,” “Song for Orphans,” and “Janey Needs a Shooter” were all included in the John Hammond tapes in 1973, the first recording Bruce ever did for CBS. They didn’t make it onto the first album, however, or any of the subsequent albums, and here we are nearly 50 years later, and they’re just now making it onto an LP.

Were these songs stinkers one could understand, but they aren’t; each is a fantastic song. I’m a big fan of “Ghosts,” and over time it may remain my favorite song on this disk, but if it doesn’t that title will probably belong to “Priest.” I am nothing but straight up big on that tune. I’m listening to it quite a lot, and it’s blowing me away more each time.

“Song for Orphans” is almost as great, and the only reason that “Janey” is my third favorite of these three is that it has less of that Dylanesque writing style that Bruce relied on in the early days.

There’s just something about the imagination and seeming lack of editorial care that Bruce had at 22, the stuff that made songs like “Growin’ Up” and “Blinded by the Light” such trippy treasures, and it’s wonderful to see new versions of it. No, it isn’t like these songs weren’t out there available for people to listen to, but these clean E Street versions weren’t, and they truly are a treat. To hear songs in that writing style being played by a band as accomplished as this one is to be treasured.

All that’s left is to listen to it

I guess you can tell that I could go on; I could indeed. I won’t, however; I imagine you get the picture. It’s really a fantastic album, and I highly recommend it. If you enjoy it just a skosh as much as I do, my efforts here will be more than worth the while.

Until sometime soon, my friends, much love and many prayers.

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