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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Letter to You,’ track-by-track

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Mary O'Reilly | The Observer


“Letter to You,” the latest album from Bruce Springsteen, isn’t just the finest album the Boss has recorded with the E Street Band in decades; it’s a living document, a vital snapshot of an American institution as they approach their 50th anniversary.

Recorded live in-studio, the album finds Springsteen and company returning to the sound and, on a few occasions, the songs that made them famous. The resulting LP joins David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” and Johnny Cash’s “American” series in the uniquely 21st-century pantheon of albums from aging rock stars looking back on their legacy and mortality without losing sight of the world around them. Associate Scene Editor Jake Winningham and guest Scene Writer Ryan McNelis go track-by-track through “Letter to You,” choosing their highlights from one of 2020’s best albums. 

“One Minute You’re Here”

Jake: On 1984’s “Glory Days,” Springsteen sings, “I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it / but I probably will.” At least he called his shot 35 years ago. Introducing the album with a hushed whisper of a song, he mourns lost friends without much help from his ostensible backing band. The song’s title sums up its own slight nature: One minute it’s here, and the next it’s gone. 

“Letter to You”

Jake: This is the album’s true opener; after the sparseness of “One Minute You’re Here,” “Letter To You”’s full-band impact instantly reminds listeners that the E Street Band still has all their heart-stopping, pants-dropping, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking fire. 

Ryan: Amidst the E Street Band’s triumphant return, this track remains intimate, even fragile, as Springsteen offers up all he has been and whatever he remains. After so many ballads of restlessness and escape, “Letter to You” is a final but hopeful surrender. 

“Burnin’ Train”

Ryan: Hell yeah. 

Jake: What Ryan said. 

“Janey Needs a Shooter”

Jake: The 6-minute-plus “Janey Needs a Shooter” is the most archetypal E Street cut on the album, with original members and newcomers alike carving out spaces for themselves in the song’s expansive arrangement. Different performances stand out each time; Steven Van Zandt’s backing vocals on the chorus are the best supporting work he’s done since the cheese scene on “The Sopranos,” and pianist Roy Bittan trades off outro riffs with saxophonist Jake Clemons in a way that recalls Bittan’s rapport alongside Clemons’ departed uncle Clarence. 

“Last Man Standing”

Jake: In a career full of anthems about the unifying power of three chords played on a cheap guitar, “Last Man Standing” is one of the more melancholic. Written to eulogize Springsteen’s former Castilles bandmate George Theiss, the song has an epic countenance that belies the sorrow at its center. 

“Power of Prayer”

Ryan: “Power of Prayer” has all the warmth of a late summer night spent beside a loved one and all the nostalgic glow of a familiar sax solo. The E Street Band made their name with music about desperate flight towards a better place, and “Power of Prayer” might be that place. 

“House of a Thousand Guitars”

Jake: Are we in agreement that this is the worst song on the album? Bittan’s piano grasps futilely for the grandeur he showed on classics like “Jungleland,” and Springsteen seems to repeat the hook one time for each six-string in the song’s title. 

Ryan: ... Can we just talk about “Rainmaker” now? 

“Rainmaker”

Ryan: The first half of the album most often finds Springsteen making one final attempt at self-understanding. “Rainmaker” marks a sharp shift in focus. An unflinchingly critical but deeply compassionate Springsteen attempts to reckon with an audience and country that have seemingly become harder and harder to recognize. 

Jake: After repeated listens, this stands out as perhaps my favorite song on “Letter to You” and certainly the most idiosyncratic. While the pedal steel accents align “Rainmaker” with the country and western sound of 2019’s “Western Stars,” the track has less in common with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and more in common with John Mellencamp’s polemical “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Written during the Bush era and seamlessly transplanted to the Trump years, “Rainmaker” is the one overtly political song on an album that otherwise steers clear of the subject. 

“If I Was the Priest”

Ryan: I’ve listened to this song over and over again. On some listens, I’m inclined to shrug and echo the Boss’s understanding of “Tenth-Avenue Freeze Out” — “I still have no idea what it means, but it's important.” But on others, a deeply personal creed emerges — Springsteen’s spirituality of the messy and the broken. 

Jake: I’m less entranced by this track. Armed with a battered rhyming dictionary, dubious Catholic imagery and a melody cribbed from “Truly Madly Deeply” of all places, Springsteen cloaks his worst impulses with an irrepressible hook. To wit, the rhyme of “the Holy Ghost is the host with the most” is less internal than it is infernal. 

“Ghosts”

Ryan: All the glory of a last stand, free of fear or desperation. The E Street Band is heading home, and assures us that we are invited on this last ride. 

Jake: E Street Band drummer and erstwhile Conan O’Brien bandleader Max Weinberg has always been the band’s secret weapon, whether it’s the sinewy hi-hat of “Candy’s Room” or the deceptive simplicity of “Born in the U.S.A.” Weinberg’s drums sound positively volcanic on “Ghosts,” starting with the garage-rock break that opens the track and continuing through to a sing-along coda that all but ensures the song’s status as a live staple if and when concerts come back.  

“Song for Orphans”

Jake: Easily the wordiest — and thus the worst — of the trio of songs on “Letter for You” originating from the sessions for Springsteen’s 1973 album “Greeting from Asbury Park, N.J.” The triptych of “Song for Orphans,” “Janey Needs A Shooter” and “If I Was The Priest” were all written at the height of Springsteen’s Bob Dylan obsession, and it shows here, with the singer’s usual gruff tenor shifting up to match the word-association lyrics. 

Ryan: It may be a jumbled, staggering attempt at an epic, but it is one that attempts to grapple with the confusion of generational change and loss. “Billy the Kid was just a bowery boy / who made a living twirling his guns” is just my kind of nonsense lyric. 

“I’ll See You in My Dreams”

Ryan: This closing track cuts between the settings of E Street’s essential hits — “Born to Run”’s sprawling highway, “The River”’s abandoned bank and “Jungleland”’s charged summer encounters. Springsteen’s music is a long epic about the wild convulsions of every heart — the immense and unwieldy feelings that come with meeting and loving in a world that does all it can to make us feel small. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” testifies to the enduring communities we build when we recognize that immensity in each other. 

Jake: It’s probably not a mistake that the melody here is reminiscent of “Born to Run”’s guitar riff — from the name of his 2016 autobiography to the closing track of his one-man Broadway show, Springsteen’s recent output has been obsessed with his signature song. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” has little in common with “Born to Run” beyond that riff, with Springsteen’s vocals taking on a dolorous tone that ends the album on an austere note. As a retrospective, this is perfectly serviceable; as a closing track, though, it’s little more than a shrug, an unfortunate glancing blow that will become more egregious if this ends up being the last song we hear from Springsteen.