From the very beginning, Bruce Springsteen was always the everyday person’s artist: a poor guy with huge talent, who had to work hard to gain the attention he deserved. But Springsteen never fell out of people’s hearts since his breakthrough with Born to Run in 1975. Better than anyone else, Springsteen wrote lyrics that hard-working people from his native New Jersey and low-class neighbourhoods all over the world could relate to, and embedded them in a chiming, overwhelming rock-outfit filled with irresistible hooks that went straight into the heart of both critics and fans who, after five years, are still with him. With Letter to You, we can make that six.
The quiet, acoustic opener ”One Minute You’re Here” along with the snowy cover photo, and the on-going pandemic suggest an album similar to his 1982 Nebraska. This first impression is quickly abandoned on the second tune, as the chiming guitars from E Street Band-members Little Steve and Nils Lofgren tune in. From this moment on, we are back to Springsteen’s ‘70s heydays, from the galloping ”Burnin’ Train” to the dramatic ending of ”I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Three of the songs were written back in 1971: ”Janey Needs a Shooter,” ”If I Was the Priest,” and ”Song for Orphans” during a period where Springsteen was very much inspired by Bob Dylan. You can literally hear ”Mr. Tambourine Man” or ”Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in these songs, but it’s a shame that Bruce didn’t bother to rewrite the lyrics, since his early attempts to write like a poet are poor compared to Dylan’s.
Springsteen’s lyrical strength comes through in the way he handles normal people’s issues, and he does several times in Letter to You, as he explores aging and death in a more upfront way than he has ever done before. It is often touching, especially in ”Last Man Standing” as he comes to the realization that he is now the last surviving member of his very first band. Unlike the older Bob Dylan, who seems to accept death as a part of life on his 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bruce seems to be outright scared of both death and saying goodbye to the life that gave him so much love. Letter to You is a vulnerable and honest album that works as a further proof that Bruce has always been one of ”us” — a musician who is as much a part of his audience as he is the man standing on stage.
All the songs on Letter to You were recorded live in the studio during a three-hour session. It is wonderful to hear the E Street Band firing on all cylinders again after their absence on last year’s Western Stars. The only thing missing is the late Clarence Celmons’ huge saxophone-solos, but I’m thankful that they decided not to replace the solos. Not to mention Springsteen’s son, Jake, is doing a great job in his place. Instead, the group sounds like the real E Street Band simply playing without Clarence. I mean, I can stand that! In addition, they don’t show a single sign of aging in their dexterity, and despite his thoughtful lyrics, Bruce’s voice has aged like wine and he sounds pretty much the same as he did 50 years ago — which, of course, means excellent.
If there are no ”Born to Run”s or ”Born in the U.S.A.”s on Letter to You, this album will stand as another highlight in Bruce’s impressive discography. If those two classics are obvious tens, Letter to You is at least a strong eight. Twenty albums in, Bruce Springsteen’s legacy as the people’s artist continues to grow bigger and stronger. Here’s to the man who shares the same fears and emotions as the rest of us, possesses the incredible talent of turning them into great rock songs, and makes us listeners feel that Bruce is our own best friend.