Staying true to a trademark genre and style without becoming uninspired and stale is difficult for any artist, but in Bruce Springsteen’s latest release, “Letter to You,” the 71-year-old maintains a youthful and fresh energy while simultaneously transporting listeners back 40 years or more with themes and licks that sound like appendices to 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” or 1980’s “The River.”
Marking the first record with the famous E Street Band since 2014’s “High Hopes,” Springsteen makes a sharp contrast with his most recent solo release, “Western Stars,” which primarily utilized a string orchestra and acoustic guitars, by putting the wailing saxophone, synthetic keyboard and bumping bass out front and center on “Letter,” adding the unique color that makes Springsteen’s songs instantly recognizable.
Springsteen’s 20th studio album is a hefty record with a runtime of 58 minutes and 17 seconds, boasting multiple songs in the five to nearly seven minute range, but none of them overstay their welcome outside of a conclusion or two that could have been cut in half.
Thematically, the shadow of reminiscence and contemplation from “Western Stars” pairs with the renowned bittersweetness, poetic intelligence and character-driven, storytelling songwriting Springsteen has perfected, creating an experience that concurrently feels like a classic yet something entirely new.
Despite bearing so many similarities to his previous and most famous work, revisiting familiar styles and ideas after such a long time seems to have given Springsteen a new perspective and way to tell the stories of blue-collar Americans, adding a knowledge and wisdom that can only be acquired with experience and age.
The first and shortest track on “Letter to You,” “One Minute You’re Here,” is an interesting choice for an introduction given it is the lone slow ballad until the second half, but it immediately sets the album’s tone and theme of exploring the fragility of life and mortality with the refrain “One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.”
The title track, which is one of the record’s two singles, plunges listeners headfirst into the style they can expect the rest of the album with four hard snare hits before a wall of twanging guitar and electric organ whisks them into tale of the hard lessons the narrator has learned over his life, continuing themes from the previous song.
“Janey Needs a Shooter,” a song originally written for 1973’s “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle” but later relegated as an outtake, perfectly encapsulates the character-driven songs that weave themselves throughout Springsteen’s discography as we are introduced to a new woman to add to Springsteen’s mythology alongside Wendy, Mary and Bobby Jean.
“Last Man Standing” is one of the most intimately personal songs in Springsteen’s entire catalog, let alone the record, as he takes an autobiographical approach in describing the beginnings of his first band, the Castiles. Springsteen is the aforementioned “last man standing,” being the only surviving member of the Castiles after the 2018 passing of George Theiss, who helped co-write many of Springsteen’s early songs.
A pair of Jake Clemons’ climactic sax solos drip with the essence of his late uncle, “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, as they propel the song in a way that will bring a smile to the face of anyone familiar with the energy and life Clarence brought to the E Street Band.
The next trio of songs, “The Power of Prayer,” “House of a Thousand Guitars” and “Rainmaker,” are the weakest entries on “Letter” both lyrically and musically. Their largest downfall is the amount of repetition of lyrics, but each song is enjoyable, and they do not seriously detract from the quality of the album in any significant way. Unfortunately for them, they are placed alongside some of the strongest entries in Springsteen’s discography in years, and they pale in comparison.
“If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans,” a pair of songs originally written in the early ‘70s before Springsteen’s debut in 1973 with “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” get their official release after only ever being recorded from less than a handful of acoustic sessions or live performances.
The writing style and themes of both tracks reflect much of what was present in “Blinded by the Light” and “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” from his debut album, as they give a mythology and anthology of life as a youth in New Jersey.
The second single, “Ghosts,” explores the universality of music and how it outlives its creator, connecting us to each other across time and place. Beginning with strong, rhythmic tom and snare hits, Springsteen also reflects on the nature of his own music and how he will be remembered when he is gone like fellow musicians from his past.
The closing track, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” further delves into the loss of Springsteen’s friends, accepting the gravity and reality of death at his age but remaining defiant and hopeful as he belts at the end of the chorus, “For death is not the end/And I’ll see you in my dreams,” an interesting turn of theme for Springsteen, because he normally crafts a bittersweet tragedy.
Like 2019’s “Western Stars,” “Letters” is an extremely satisfying listen, but for a different reason. In “Stars,” Springsteen experimented with a country, folk sound that he pulled off well, but it still wasn’t “The Boss” we’ve come to know; “Letters” solves that problem and quenches the thirst of any fans who wanted more pure Springsteen content, even if they didn’t realize they needed it.
The three songs written in the early ‘70s as Springsteen established himself as an artist contribute positively to the tone of the record as they are some of the strongest tracks, reintroducing and solidifying in the listener’s mind the old familiar characters synonymous with Springsteen’s storytelling.
The album’s tales of hard luck and sentimentality wash over listeners for nearly an hour, soaking them like spray from the ocean on the Jersey boardwalk Springsteen haunts in his songs, making this album yearn for a drive to nowhere with the windows rolled down like countless teenage boys did after “Born to Run” was released 45 years ago.
The most compelling part of record doesn’t come on any of the tracks or even in the lyrics: it’s when the realization comes to light that “Letter to You” is a love letter to you, the listener, from Springsteen himself. He pours his soul into this album as he reflects and grapples with his own mortality, coming to terms with the fact that legends indeed die, but he is determined to show he’s not yet ready to fade into the sunset.
The letter Springsteen pens with this record won’t have the same cultural significance or define an era like the slamming screen door or Mary’s waving dress in “Thunder Road,” but it contains some of the best rock and roll produced in years, not just from Springsteen but from any artist.