“I make my vows to those who’ve come before, I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide,” sings an emotional Bruce Springsteen on “Ghosts,” an anthem that pays tribute to his departed bandmates. Throughout Springsteen’s 20th studio album “Letter To You,” released Oct. 23, the 71-year-old musician steps back from the fiery, Bob Dylan-esque storytelling that’s defined his lengthy stadium rock career and instead comes to terms with a loss of youth.
It’s no surprise that Springsteen’s musical outlook has taken a turn in a decade when he’s seen the deaths of several of his closest bandmates, including the recent passing of George Theiss, lead singer of Springsteen’s first band from the 1960s. On top of that, “Letter To You” can be seen as the frustrated musings of an energetic artist who, due to COVID-19, may not perform in front of his beloved arena crowds until 2022, when he’s nearly 74 years of age.
Although “Letter To You” is ultimately a commentary on growing old and dying, it’s much less of a somber wake than it is a vivacious, foot-stomping celebration of life.
The driving snares of drummer Max Weinberg and the soulful saxophone riffs of Nick Clemons surge through the album, injecting it with the fist-pumping, arena-pulsating energy that Springsteen’s troupe, the E Street Band, often brings to their live performances. This was the philosophy behind the album’s production, recorded with no overdubs. Crammed into Springsteen’s home studio in Asbury Park, the E Street Band recorded the entire album live in session with only a few hours per track. As Springsteen told NPR last week, the methodology could be likened to “performing the songs.”
Though it might seem haphazard for an artist of Springsteen’s caliber, that free-wheeling spirit pays off. “Letter To You” is a near-faithful re-creation of the E Street Band’s lightning-in-a-bottle live shows through energetic guitar riffs and Springsteen’s gruff, passionate vocals, along with welcome bursts of harmonica melodies to add flavor. “The Power of Prayer” serves as the best example of this sonic blast of joy, with layers of different harmonies to keep an ear out for with each listen. In a time when we’re all stuck inside, devoid of the concert experience for an indefinite amount of time, the warmth that courses through the entire record is just what we need right now.
There’s a large departure from the typically character-focused lyricism that Springsteen has weaved into his signature storytelling, like the wayfaring explorer in last year’s country-genre effort “Western Stars,” or the various Rust Belt workers from 1995’s “Youngstown.” More surprisingly, there’s virtually no “Born in the U.S.A.”-esque political commentary either. Maybe that’s a product of the wisdom and humility that comes with his age, with less of a desire to hide behind a curated persona or light a fire under hot-button issues. Instead, “Letter To You” focuses on just what the title promises: honest ruminations from an everyman, intimately divulged to the listener.
“It’s just your ghost moving through the night / Spirit filled with light, I need, need you by my side,” he hums on “Ghosts,” describing his old friends as a welcome presence even beyond life, nearly begging them to haunt him. In the documentary that accompanies the album, Springsteen explores his home studio peppered with pictures of his old band, the Castiles, of which departed friend George Theiss was the frontman. Through this nostalgic trip through his past—several of the album’s songs even re-purposed lyrics written in the singer’s 30s—Springsteen gives a tear-jerking sense of closure to the chapter of his life that kickstarted the path he’s traveled on for over 50 years, rewarding longtime fans.
Though he takes time to mourn, Springsteen infuses an overwhelmingly positive, spiritual attitude on the last track “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” On his late friends, he firmly decides that he’ll “see (them) in my dreams, around the river bend, for death is not the end.” He belts his words with such conviction that his uninhibited belief can be felt as if he’s willing them to stay beside him till the end of time. The infusion of organs in the song’s melody, paired with Springsteen’s lyricism, gives the track a near gospel-like quality, a perfect finale for the album’s emotional journey.
Despite the booming sounds and emotionally-charged lyrics, “Letter To You” mainly feels profoundly vulnerable, a welcome invitation for any listener to commemorate the passage of time and take a moment to shed a tear for the things they miss.
Perhaps this earnest, therapy-like approach is best summed up on the title track: “Things I found out through hard times and good, I wrote ’em all out in ink and blood / Dug deep in my soul, signed my name true and sent it in my letter to you.”
Though this project could read like a twilight years version of his acclaimed 80s albums, filled with humble, somber reflections on his friendships and career, Springsteen brings back an energy from his youth that was never really lost to begin with. “Letter To You” assures us that this is far from a curtain call for the rocker from Asbury Park.
Stream “Letter To You” here.
Contact CU Independent Assistant Arts Editor Ben Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org.