Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
Just last year Bruce Springsteen released Western Stars, a concept album based around Americana themes – particularly cowboys of the old west, the ultimate symbol of American folklore. This was perhaps fitting for an artist who grew up in the ‘50s, the era during which that sort of mythology was the most popular, certainly among kids. In a sense, then, Springsteen shoots right to the opposite end of the spectrum with his new album Letter to You. The cover artwork shows the artist against a background depicting winter, a common metaphor for the latter part of a long life. Even the title implies a degree of sentiment – not to mention a form of communication – which we might associate with an older person.
Beyond that, however, Letter to You also departs from his last release in the sense that it is overall a much more traditional – or dare we even say typical – Bruce Springsteen album. Even many of the backing musicians who have long helped define his career – including guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bassist Gary Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg – make a triumphant return to his side. Regardless, the E Street Band (as we’re still calling them) do not share billing on the album, a move possibly reflected in Springsteen opening the album with an acoustic folk number, “One Minute You’re Here.”
After that, however, Springsteen picks up the pace immediately with the title cut, and then continues along that track with “Burnin’ Train”, a tight rocker in which Springsteen manages to do something fresh with one of rock’s most overused metaphors (i.e. trains). “Last Man Standing” is a strong anthem that ties in with the album’s underlying survival theme, and includes a great saxophone solo by second-generation E Streeter Jake Clemons (nephew of the late Clarence Clemons). Oddly, the track is followed with “Power of Prayer”, which is virtually the same song with different lyrics.
“If I Was the Priest” actually suggests Jackson Browne or the late Tom Petty, two songwriter-musicians who have long (and unfairly) been considered Springsteen’s also-rans. The lyrics suggest homage to “If I Were a Carpenter”, the 1967 Tim Harden composition covered by, among countless others, Bob Dylan. Dylan’s obvious influence of Springsteen has always been the subject of both praise and scorn for the younger artist, and here it seems as though Springsteen gets all of that out of his system at once with the unmistakably Dylan-esque “Song for Orphans.”
“Ghosts” opens with an ‘80s style drum beat and then quickly and successfully materializes as the album’s token “fun” song. Letter to You’s low points include “House of a Thousand Guitars”, which is at least clever in that it’s just piano for the first third or so of the cut. However, much of the song then comes dangerously close to the cheesy ‘70s sound that Springsteen was always considered to be the antidote to. And the title alone of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” seems flippant and overly sentimental, although it ultimately works well enough as an album-closer.
Western Stars (which, when released in 2019 had been Springsteen’s first new studio album in five years) was in fact a commercial success, so it doesn’t seem as though this album was meant to be damage control to reassure his fans that his trademark sound hasn’t gone anywhere. By the same token, Letter to You probably won’t win Bruce Springsteen any new fans. But after nearly fifty years and sales of more than sixty-four million records in the US alone, it’s not like he needs them.