Springsteen's "Letter To You"

I told him I was already overdue for Cheyenne.

Springsteen's "Letter To You"

Now that The List has been updated and published, I am free to pontificate at length about the new record, so here we are!

The existence of a new Bruce Springsteen album at any time, let alone in this horrific year of our lady 2020 is a fantastic gift. The record sounds absolutely amazing from a production standpoint. Recording live with the E Street Band was a stroke of genius, thank you Miami Steve for utilizing your particular influence there. I am happy that the writer’s block broke, I am happy that this came together so quickly before the pandemic. I feel like I need to get all of this out of the way before digging into things, because the ability to be thrilled about about a record/show/tour and the concurrent ability to be critical of it seems to elude people sometimes.

Disclaimer: I embargoed myself from reading or listening to anything except the documentary and the album release evening because I knew I had to write and have not yet caught up. So it is possible that within this newsletter I will lament that Bruce has not told us X when he has. Please, just work with me here.

My biggest problem with Letter To You is the inconsistency in the narrative arc. He definitely had a theme, a motif, a message - A LETTER, IF YOU WILL - but the story is depending a lot on him telling us what the theme is instead of just letting the songs do it. This is even more infuriating because this record has arrived after the memoir and then the Broadway show, it’s like - BRUCE! WE KNOW! You TOLD US. Even if you decide that, generously, Bruce fucking Springsteen can write as many records he wants in any form or shape he pleases, and maybe this is just a bunch of songs where he works out his guilt over both his longevity and success -- then I am going to argue that he didn’t go hard enough on that particular subject on this record, and in many cases, repeats himself without expanding or finishing the thought.

The biggest culprit in the wandering thought category is the title track. Leaving aside the fact that he’s singing a song about the fact that he’s writing a letter, it’s an incomplete story. (Although my friend K. nailed it when she posted to the group chat, “Just knowing what we do about Bruce doesn’t he strike you as the kind of person who would call you up to tell you that he wrote you a letter and then tell you what was in the letter?”)

The run of “Last Man Standing,” “Power of Prayer” and “House of A Thousand Guitars” (which I kept writing as “Land of 1000 Guitars,” which is a grand Caryn Rose tradition [anyone who ever read me at Five Horizons knows how often I called a certain song “Elderly Woman Around The Corner In A Small Town”] BUT in this context I think I am allowed because it is not actually that far off).

“Last Man Standing” is solid, but we’re then repeating themes and scenes in the next two, which makes “Last Man Standing” less powerful. “Power of Prayer” has some good lines and achingly gorgeous harmonies, but I’m not sure it adds anything to the record. And “House of A Thousand Guitars” made me pull off the road the first time I heard it because I was yelling “NO! NO, YOU DO NOT GET TO USE THE CHURCHES AND THE JAILS LINE AGAIN, BRUCE. NO WAY.” (I’m not sure which is more unbelievable, that Bruce couldn’t remember — Jesus do a Google! — or that not one person sitting in that studio reminded him. Maybe Stevie had other battles to fight that particular day.) I know that he likes to re-use phrases until he thinks he gets it right, but I believe I speak for the entire freaking universe when I say that HE ALREADY GOT THAT ONE RIGHT.

This topic is right in Bruce’s sweet spot, think about what he’s said about the importance of a good cover band to every town, everything in the book and in the album documentary about the three years of the Castiles, how he has spoken over and over again about what it was like to be a working musician in those years, how if you were an under-age musician you could still work every single weekend. I think about these stories a lot when he and Stevie tell them because they’re describing a world that no longer exists and will never exist again, even before we had a global pandemic that is decimating live performance as we know it. There are many things that Bruce still could say about those times that would be insightful and meaningful. “House of A Thousand Guitars” is not it, and it is a lost opportunity

“Burnin’ Train” is an outlier, not part of the story except that, generously, you could see it as part of his reflections on mortality, and if you listened to any of the Sirius DJ sessions when he’s gone completely horndog, it’s not gonna really be a surprise that at age 71 Bruce Springsteen is writing songs about how he can still get it and THEN titling the song “Burnin’ Train.” I don’t know whether I’m more annoyed that he’s broken the dotted line between all of his train songs or that he is going to be so glaringly obvious. And it is a great sounding song, powerful, full of … okay I’m going to stop. It sounds great! Can’t wait to see this one live.

The other outlier on the record also happens to be the best song on the album, which is “Rainmaker.” I had my first listen of the album while on a long drive, and two lines in I knew what it was about and this was the first thing it reminded me of (the intro, not the song that follows it.)

I’m not surprised to hear him say that he wrote it years ago, because, I mean, meet the new boss, same as the old boss has always been true, and I’m sorry he has to say it because it doesn’t matter, it is such a great song, both lyrically and musically. You can see the dust on the ground, the red sunset, you can feel the heat. He sets the scene, carries you through it, points out the things you need to know, is part of the scene but isn’t a participant nor is he sitting above the fray. “Some come to make damn sure, my friend/This mean season’s got nothin’ to do with them” and “‘Cause they don’t care or understand/What it really takes for the sky to open up the land” are simply breathtaking.

(And we will never hear it live. I am very certain of this.)

I admire the artistry of the bookends of the album, “One Minute You’re Here” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” I love how “Minute” sounds and feels, even if it’s not as definitive thematically as I would like — I know he explains it in the documentary, but if he has to do that, then maybe the song could use some additional work — and I had kind of written off “I’ll See You In My Dreams” until repeated listens. It reminded me, a lot, of Bruce’s meditation on Clarence from the Broadway show, and I am struck by his bravery, in a society chock full of toxic masculinity, in normalizing male grief over loss, and all those nights of him standing on the center platform in the middle of the audience, surrounded by all of us, remembering both Clarence and Danny. It wasn’t for show.

I did not consider it a good omen when the track listing was released and we found out about the three early 70’s songs being on the record, because — although I was ecstatic to think we’d get a real “Janie Needs A Shooter” — why would you be pulling out ancient outtakes if your writer’s block had broken so freely? And although he talks about the songs and keeps insisting he doesn’t know what they mean, what he doesn’t stop to explain is why these three songs in particular, why these three now, on this record, and how do these songs connect to the story he is telling about his early days and the Castiles. Does he think it’s not important? I find it hard to believe that he hasn’t considered that answer for himself.

I’m not surprised I love “Janey Needs A Shooter” because I have loved it since I heard the Zevon take and a bad bootleg of the ‘79 band rehearsal. It’s not the same attitude but it would have been disingenuous to try to be in that place again at age 71, so instead it’s just a version for 2020. I think everyone plays fantastically, I think it goes on too long at the end with no resolution, and the first time I heard it, I sat in a Target parking lot crying that Charlie Giordano isn’t Danny Federici and that we’d never get to hear what Danny would have brought to this song, even if Charlie — as usual — acquits himself marvelously here (and, I mean, in general). But as even Bruce has made clear, both Danny and Clarence are still members of the E Street Band, just in absentia.

It is hilarious to me how this song ended up with Warren Zevon, because it is entirely Jon Landau’s fault, he talked it up to Zevon, just the title! And Zevon wanted the song and built his own world, in an entirely different — but equally violent — direction than Bruce did. Landau wouldn’t let “Hungry Heart” go to the Ramones but Zevon can have this?

It is such a “sitting up late listening to WNEW” kind of song for me, and it is still an incredibly violent song. It is a song that terrified me as a teenager, not in the kind of ‘the iron is hot but i’m going to touch it anyway’ terror, but the kind of STAY AWAY, DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER kind of way, the kind of thing that I was not ever going to think about getting anywhere near. (I think this was a general distrust of that Los Angeles cocaine-infused time in the late 70s, which included the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac, but funnily enough NOT Tom Petty, even though we know now there was PLENTY of cocaine going on on that side of the tracks too. Then again there was cocaine everywhere in the 70s!)

“If I Was The Priest” is the biggest surprise to me. I kind of shrugged when I saw it on the track list, placing it into the “burnin’ up the rhyming dictionary” / “I didn’t know if he was Jewish but once I heard that song I knew he had to be Catholic” category, but it is just delightful. I think it is the ease and command that 2019 Springsteen has with his work compared to early ‘70s Bruce, or that it feels like a song that you’d sing around a campfire. And, as with the rest of the record, you can hear every instrument and everyone is playing great. I will confess, however, that it wasn’t until earlier this week that I realized that I’d heard “there’s a girl/over by the water fountain” and for decades thought of, you know, a water fountain.

Which, given the song’s setting, it obviously is not!

Listen — I am in favor of any new music from Bruce Springsteen. I want him to keep recording albums in a week with the E Street Band for as long as is humanly possible. I want him to go find more outtakes and rework them (and put out Tracks 2 already!!) Like, throw it all out there now while all of us — including him — can enjoy it for as long as possible. I love listening to this record. But hopefully, we have gotten being all summational out of his system, at least for a little while.

I love how this record sounds, and it’s not particularly stylized in any way. Aniello just gets out of the way and makes sure the entire band is heard. I love how this album feels. Ultimately, that’s what most people are going to walk away with from this record.

I do disagree with him about one thing, though: that a record of angry songs from Bruce Springsteen about the current political climate would be boring. I’m just not sure that needs to be his job.

p.s. The album packaging is just gorgeous. Absolutely the best visual design of a Springsteen record in the post-Reunion era. The indie gray vinyl version is really something else.