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For a man celebrated for making some of the greatest rock albums ever, Bruce Springsteen has struggled with problematic sonics surprisingly often.
Study the shadow history of his catalogue and you’ll uncover The Boss’ perpetual difficulties with getting his sound exactly right. On Darkness On The Edge Of Town, he tried for weeks to get a proper drum sound. (More than 40 years later, the jury is still out on whether he actually pulled it off.) On The River, he pit his garage-rock purist guitarist Steven Van Zandt against his precision-minded R&B-loving producer Jon Landau in the hopes of achieving a happy medium. During the Nebraska/Born In The U.S.A. period in the early ’80s, he vacillated between playing live with the E Street Band and the control that home-recording afforded him. By the time of Tunnel Of Love, he had fully come under the spell of the latter, a phenomenon that would carry over to his troubled ’90s output.
In more recent years, Springsteen has split the difference in the studio between a piecemeal approach to assembling tracks (Magic) and awkwardly shoehorning modern slickness into his comfortably weathered aesthetic (Wrecking Ball). All the while, Springsteen’s albums have typically fallen short of the visceral power of his live performances. (One of the strengths of 2019’s lush folk-country confection Western Stars is that it’s so far removed from his usual musical palate that comparing it to his concerts makes little sense.)
For the Bruce fan inclined to play fantasy A&R, the solution has always seemed simple: Why not simply plug in and play with one of rock’s best backing bands, and record with minimal fuss or overdubs? What could possibly sound better than that?
This, happily, is the M.O. of Springsteen’s 20th album, Letter To You, out Friday. Last November, Springsteen assembled the E Street Band to quickly record a mix of new and old songs in a matter of days. At the suggestion of his trusted keyboardist, “Professor” Roy Bittan, he didn’t demo any of the tracks ahead of time. Instead, he played the tunes on guitar for the musicians, and worked out the arrangements in the studio. It was how Springsteen had worked with the band in the ’70s and ’80s, though Letter To You took the approach a step or two further.
In the past, Springsteen might have recorded quickly, but then he would sit on the tracks for a few years before releasing them, if at all. But this time, the notorious perfectionist let his guard down. He played, they rocked, and then moved on. The result is the most immediate and best-sounding album Springsteen has made since the ’80s, even if the songs themselves don’t quite reach the same standard.
Letter To You has already been described, by critics and even Springsteen himself, as a “mortality” record. There are numerous songs to support that claim — the elegiac “House Of A Thousand Guitars,” in which Springsteen reimagines heaven as a Jersey Shore nightclub in which closing time never comes; the self-explanatory “Last Man Standing,” a hymn inspired by the death of Springsteen’s boyhood friend George Theiss from his first band, The Castiles; and “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” in which Bruce optimistically proclaims that “death is not the end.”
These sorts of sentiments line up with the reflective work that Springsteen has done in his 2016 memoir, Born To Run, and his excellent one-man stage show, Springsteen On Broadway. But while Bruce has done plenty of ruminating on the inevitability of death and how the past can be both a burden and a comfort — both themes are key to “Ghosts,” the most rousing and arena-made track from Letter To You — his most insightful writing in the past several years has been meta-commentary about his own art, reflecting on the space between the mythology of Bruce Springsteen and the introverted loner from Freehold, New Jersey who invented that great American character. Springsteen spends a lot of time in his book and stage show reconciling the reality of his life with the way he’s perceived. (The broken-down movie-star narratives of Western Stars tackle this subject metaphorically.) In the process, he’s given his audience fresh perspective on how even Bruce Springsteen, the man, is inspired (if also occasionally haunted) by Bruce Springsteen, the icon.
If the autobiographical bent of Springsteen’s recent work has had the ring of public therapy sessions, Letter To You is the point where Bruce finally comes to terms with his myth. No other rock star of his stature is as self-conscious or self-critical; the impulse to write five songs for every single track he puts out, as well as his sometimes uncertain hand in guiding the production of his records, has always seemed driven by an insatiable need to prove himself. But this time, he’s made his most unabashed Bruce Springsteen-sounding music of the 21st century.
Ultimately, it’s the sound of Letter To You that is most striking. The sonic allusions to Springsteen’s past will immediately stir the souls of die-hards — the Born To Run-like sweep of Bittan’s piano on “House Of A Thousand Guitars,” Max Weinberg’s titanic drum break at the start of “Ghosts,” Steven Van Zandt’s grizzled backing vocal on “Janey Needs A Shooter,” the gritty churn of Springsteen’s own Fender on “Burnin’ Train.” These signifiers are so faithfully and powerfully replicated that it almost doesn’t matter that the songs themselves, for the most part, are merely pretty good. The cinematic storytelling of Western Stars has been supplanted by something broader and vaguer. Yes, the lyrics are “personal,” in that they appear to reflect the concerns of a 71-year-old man who was prone to over-analyzing his own life and legacy from the time he started making records. But they aren’t as vivid or distinct as Western Stars, or certainly the bygone classics that Letter To You evokes.
If this album didn’t hit with as much red-meat rock ‘n’ roll excitement, it might have tracked more like High Hopes, Springsteen’s undistinguished previous LP with The E Street Band from 2014 that recycled old material. On Letter To You, he similarly raided the vaults, though his choices this time are likably idiosyncratic — “If I Was The Priest” and “Song For Orphans” date back to his mile-a-minute Dylanesque period, when Bruce never met a verse into which he couldn’t cram 27 words. And then there’s “Janey Needs A Shooter,” one of the album’s best and most bombastic moments, another song that dates back to the early ’70s that has been revived in the guise of a Darkness-style stunner.
It’s possible to contextualize these excavated songs as fitting into a larger concept about Springsteen taking stock of his past. Some have even dared to suggest that this could be a “farewell” record, but that frankly seems preposterous. Bosses don’t retire, and I can’t imagine Springsteen ever voluntarily fading away. On the contrary, the relatively low-stakes but highly pleasurable Letter To You suggests that he’s been re-energized by once again leading his eternally potent band. When you can still make a sound this big and glorious, why quit?
Letter To You is out Friday. Get it here.