Letter To You, the twentieth album in Bruce Springsteen's career, is not an album about these times, nor one with which he tries to raise the morale of his compatriots after a traumatic event. This is Springsteen looking back to his glory days, remembering friends who are no longer here. It is a ‘cheers’ to Clarence and another to Danny, and it is to demonstrate to himself that his work as a ‘rock & roll preacher’ has been worthwhile; something with which many will agree.
One Minute You're Here has a calm beginning that doesn't feel like his much-vaunted return to rock, but it does lay the thematic foundation for the rest of the album, that look at death face to face - with the thought that life is nothing but a sigh; one moment you're here, the next you're gone.
It is not the first time that the Boss looks death in the face, but it is the album in which its shadow is longest. If The River ended with a song that left us thinking about death, here it is not necessary, because from the beginning the death of colleagues, friends and family is present. It is a letter from Springsteen to his fans, but a letter that comes signed by Springsteen and the E Street Band and, yes, that can be read as a farewell, because if it has taken a decade to write these songs, who knows how many albums they have left together, with Bruce at 71, and the world involved in a global pandemic.
This album was made before the madness of COVID-19 began, but it's impossible to separate this from it. Because it seems like a divine coincidence that now that they can't get back on the road, Bruce and his boys decided to record the album in just five days and live, all at once, for the first time since we don't know when, as if they were sending the album to their fans, now that they can't. And the record ‘smells of live’ everywhere, and that can't help but be a great thing if we're talking about Springsteen and his boys, even though Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are no longer with them, they're still present in spirit; thanks to the remarkable new members.
After the introduction comes Springsteen's ‘confession’: these ‘letters to his followers’ are songs to ease the burdens of everyday existence and that is the purpose to which he has dedicated his life and with which he intends to continue, even if he is the last man standing; a reference to the fact that he is the only survivor of the band with which he began to play, The Castiles, after the death of George Theiss last year. In fact, that specific song, Last Man Standing, sees him looking back to the glory days, to the beginning of everything, to his golden age.
And here we arrive at one of the great tests to which this album will be subjected, and that is if it stands comparison with Springsteen’s ‘best moment’ (for me that includes all the albums that go from The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle to Born In The USA). In that context it has to be said that, yes, it is a little below that level, but that does not mean it is not a remarkable album and the best thing that he has done in the 21st century; at the height or even a little above The Rising.
There has also been a lot of discussion about the fact that he has reworked three songs from the early 70's; in my opinion they are among the highlights of the album but they are not the best of the lot, a prize that I think goes to House Of Thousand Guitars and Ghosts. By the way, speaking of those three old songs, written when Springsteen still had the 'new Dylan' label hanging over him, it is incredible how much they sound like the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, not only because of that amazing verbiage, so typical of Springsteen's first two albums, but heard right now with the E Street Band playing at its best, specifically at its period of splendor back in 1965 and 1966 when he embarked on his fabulous and controversial tour with The Band. There are moments when listening to Song For Orphans that you can hear things from the arrengement of One Too Many Mornings, which they played on that tour.
For its part If I Was A Priest again demonstrates that there are few artists with a catalogue of outtakes as incredible as Springsteen, as Tracks, The Promise or the expanded version of The River well proves. Here the comparison with the Dylan of his mercurial period is again totally appropriate, with a harmonica solo included; but Springsteen is using one of the tricks that made him different "I was signed up to the 'new Dylan' package but I was able to turn it around, plug in my Telecaster and bring the house down.” And at the end of the song there is a spectacular solo that proves it.
Ghosts was the second advance release and at first it didn't quite catch me, with that riff so similar to Tom Petty's Free Fallin', but in the context of the album the song is suited better; one can understand the emotion with which it is sung as it is ‘pushed along’ by all the ghosts of the past, by Clarence, by Danny, by Theiss, by Elvis, by Chuck Berry, by Little Richard and other fallen rock gods, but also by all those who put their Fender Twin on 10 in a garage and put a Les Paul on their shoulders, ready to leave no one alive by a performance, whether in the smallest bar in the world or in the biggest stadium.
House Of A Thousand Guitars, begins with the wonderful piano of Roy Bittan until the whole E Street Band joins him. It is the most powerful melody on the whole album and in his lyrics the topic of the healing power of music appears again, which he hopes he can offer to his followers, as others have offered him: "So we can shake off your troubles my friend, We'll go where the music never ends, From the stadiums to the small town bars, We'll light up the house of a thousand guitars". Also it is one of the few occasions in which Springsteen departs from ‘the personal’ to take a pop at Donald Trump: "The criminal clown has stolen the throne, He steals what he can never owns"; although The Rainmaker is more direct: "Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad, They'll hire a rainmaker".
But, as I said, this is a totally personal album, as the last song, I'll See You In My Dreams proves; Springsteen is clear that he will return to the stage with Clarence, with Danny, with Theiss ... because death is not the end and he will see them again in his dreams. In some ways it sounds like a goodbye, but in today's context it also sounds like a relief, in a moment when all this fucking madness is over and “we'll meet and live and laugh again".
It seems clear that Springsteen is reasserting his faith in the religion of rock & roll, praying for his Saints, and also for friends who have fallen by the way. Now that he's the only one left from his first group, The Castiles, his belief in the healing power of rock remains as strong as ever, and as a good believer, he knows that death is not a goodbye but a farewell. And that's how he knows that Elvis isn't dead - not because he's walking on a Hawaiian beach incognito, but because as long as there's someone in some part of the world getting excited about one of his songs, Elvis won't have left the building yet. Something that in some ways he knows will also happen with his music. So see you later Boss… in dreams.