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Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You

After however many decades and whatever number of albums, we’ve come to understand what is quintessentially Bruce Springsteen. When his new album Letter to You opens with a line about a train, it sounds like he’s setting up just the folk version of more of the same. As that track, “One Minute You’re Here,” progresses with specific allusions to his past writing, it becomes clear that Springsteen is pursuing something different. The album does function like a set of correspondences to fans and colleagues, often offering self-reflection and career considerations.

Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band for a few days of essentially live recording. The band, predictably, sounds like it should. There are some missing pieces from the classic band, of course, most notably saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away in 2011. The retro sound, though, never feels like a rehash. Springsteen works with his old friends in order to reuse and reshape the old sounds. Springsteen can be prone to nostalgia traps, but Letter to You, lyrically and musically successfully skirts the edge of that pitfall, normally through a transparent honesty that resists misuse of the past.

That earnestness could serve as a gatekeeper for listeners. When Springsteen sings of “where the music never ends” and the relief to be found in “the house of a thousand guitars,” it could be too much. He earns the sentiment, though, as the album frequently undercuts the possibility of naïve hope or memory. When he turns to music in “House of a Thousand Guitars” as a community-building source of salvation, it would be a bit much if he hadn’t spend half the album building to this point, letting the darkness at the edge of his lyrics shape the need to act in some manner, by playing music in Springsteen’s case.

That opening cut, that one that seemed to forecast thematic retreads, actually provides the ground for this balanced writing. “One Minute You’re Here” knowingly uses the “big black train” trope to quickly summarize so much that needs to be said. Now in his 70s (and sounding 20 years younger), Springsteen sees the fleeting nature of life, but also of connections, around him. The E Street Band fills the record with more conventional rockers that you can connect to pretty much any album with “Born” in its title, but they do so with the knowledge of what they’ve come through and how much they need to say in a short amount of time.

Part of that knowledge involves remembering and finishing old songs. “Janey Needs a Shooter” finally finds resolution and, while it’s tough to say anything is worth the wait after 40 or so years, this rendition proves its value (and reminds us that we still miss Warren Zevon, but that’s a separate story). The other two oldies fare a little less well. “If I Was the Priest,” recovered from some of Springsteen’s earliest songwriting, works well, but it sounds like an older song, and its mix of Jesus and guns comes with contextual complications these days that don’t quite work out. “Songs for Orphans” relies too much on a Dylan influence and rambles a bit. Both this track and “Priest” feel like souvenirs rather than the more matured reflections and given the strength of Springsteen’s current writing, could have been saved for later even if they do their jobs here.

Of course, in an album largely about thinking through our connections to the past and to each other, their inclusion makes a sort of thematic sense. With all that in mind – the loss, the joy, and the complications of a life considered – Springsteen closes with “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and its hope for something more to come than just this life, completing the thoughts he began at the start of the album and brought to fullness on “Ghosts.” It’s too early to tell if Letter to You will stand as a landmark Springsteen release, but Springsteen knows exactly what he wants to say and who can help him say it. To do so, he uses his own past with clarity to reveal the present with precision.

It's too early to tell if Letter to You will stand as a landmark Springsteen release, but Springsteen knows exactly what he wants to say and who can help him say it.
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