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Bruce Springsteen ‘Letter To You’ (Song-By-Song Breakdown)
The cycle of songs that form Letter To You, the new album from Bruce Springsteen, reveals a lot about his frame of mind. We’ve seen a flurry of activity from “The Boss” in the last decade, insights into his psyche through the Springsteen On Broadway show and his 2019 album Western Stars.
When the news was released announcing this latest album, I approached it with excitement. There was curiosity about what he had to say this time around. With Letter To You, we become witnesses into Springsteen’s diary, a contemplative and reflective side, and maybe for him, the turning of a page.
The memories from a decade that has seen the passing of beloved E Street band members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, and a member of Springsteen’s inner circle, Terry McGovern, have stayed with Springsteen. These tragic events were magnified with the recent death of his friend and bandmate from his teenage days, George Theiss. Theiss was a prominent force in Springsteen’s early musical forays when they were linked in the band, the Castiles. It’s easy to grasp how the combination of these losses, as well as acknowledging his advancing age, probably were at the forefront in addressing Letter To You.
The album was recorded pre-COVID, in November 2019 at Springsteen’s NJ home studio, a creative burst over five days with the E Street Band. The recordings were done live off the floor, no demos, and few overdubs. As evidenced in the accompanying Apple TV movie of the same name, the energy and electricity in the room are palpable, the band feeding off each others’ strengths, their unified belief in Springsteen’s new songs. More than anything else, they are genuinely excited about the opportunity to work as a unit again, and this comes through in the songs.
A Song-By-Song Breakdown
The album kicks off on a serious, dark note with “One Minute You’re Here.” Instantly Springsteen sets a mood with pained lyrics:
“Big black train comin’ down the track …
As the summer wind sings its last song,
One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.”
When you consider that other Springsteen albums had a habit of lifting off with earth-shakers like, “Thunder Road,” “Radio Nowhere,” “The Ties That Bind,” “We Take Care Of Our Own,” and, “Badlands,” the choice to lead off with “One Minute You’re Here” is deliberate, and with a purpose. The listener is being pointed in a clear direction, and a mood is in place.
Stylistically, the opening track could have easily fit into some of Springsteen’s more recent acoustic/solo work. It is quiet in tone, but speaks much louder with its words. What might be lacking in tone picks up with the next song, the album’s title track.
Whereas the E Street Band provided restrained support on “One Minute You’re Gone,” on “Letter” we are re-introduced to a glorious familiar sound. And it is a welcome return to hear the power of the band. Digging into the song’s meaning, at first listen I interpreted it as Springsteen’s confessional, speaking to himself, another look into his inner struggles:
“Things I found out through hard times and good,
I wrote ’em all out in ink and blood.
Dug deep in my soul and signed my name true.”
In the interviews he’s conducted, he’s said that the title cut is more a letter from him to his audience:
“In my letter to you I took all my fears and doubts.
In my letter to you, all the hard things I found out.
In my letter to you, all that I’ve found true.
And I sent it in my letter to you.”
Springsteen propels the song with a simple yet effective guitar riff. Sonically, the track wouldn’t have been out of place during the Magic or Working on a Dream periods. He recently performed it in an acoustic version that shed a new and clearer light on the song. Don’t get me wrong — the song is great with the full band, but it’s this quiet version that welcomes the song’s strength in solitude.
On the third track, “Burnin’ Train,” Springsteen once again visits the idea of using trains as a lyrical metaphor. In the past, we’ve had “Downbound Train,” “Leavin’ Train” and “Tucson Train.” On “Burning Train,” it’s a relationship that’s on his mind, through some overtly religious symbolism.
“With our shared faith rising dark and decayed,
Take me and shake me from this mortal cage.
Take me on your burnin’ train.”
The E Street Band are once more on full-frontal attack, buoyed by a Springsteen guitar solo that screeches on a the level of “Prove It All Night” and “Cover Me.” Springsteen hinted in interviews that “Burning Train” was slated to be the set opener for a 2020 tour if that tour had happened. The song has all the ingredients that an opener needs: a pulsating rhythm, powerful vocals, and an addictive audience singalong chorus.
With the next track, we are brought to an interesting aspect of Letter To You — Springsteen’s decision to revisit and include songs that date back to the early days of his career. The first of these “old” songs, “Janey Needs A Shooter,” created some confusion when it was first mentioned — confusion with “Jeannie Needs A Shooter” — the Warren Zevon/Springsteen tune from 1978. Springsteen’s song dates back to 1973, the melody adapted from an earlier tune, “Talking About My Baby’ (thanks Ken Rosen for the research) There is evidence of a full-band recording of “Janey” and rumors persist that it was in consideration for the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. If it had been included on Darkness, and especially in a version similar to the one on Letter, it would have been one of the album’s dominating tunes.
“Janey Needs A Shooter” is not unlike many of those early Springsteen tunes — there is a jumble of words and thoughts, and it takes more than one casual listen to understand what Springsteen is singing about. Amidst the sexual references, it is clear that Janey is on a quest for a compassionate lover:
“Janey needs a shooter now
A shooter like me on her side
Janey needs a shooter now
A shooter man who knows her style
The way that I know her style”
While my initial reaction about the song’s inclusion caused me to scratch my head, “Janey” admittedly has a perfect resting spot on Letter, and the support by the E Street Band solidifies my belief.
“Last Man Standing” and “The Power Of Prayer” are the next two songs. Their placement on the album, one after another, in my opinion, is a misjudgment. To my ears they are a bit too similar in melody, and it’s hard to escape this feeling when they seem to collide into each other. While both songs exude powerful messages, “Prayer” for me is a stronger song. It is essentially a love song, and it’s interesting to note that considering he has disavowed his Catholic upbringing, Springsteen continues to litter even his love songs with spiritual imagery:
“They say that love of comes and goes
But darling what, what do they know
I’m reaching for heaven, we’ll make it there”
“Last Man Standing” tackles the message of loss that was heard in “One Minute You’re Gone,” — a message that would be repeated a few more times before the album is done. There is little doubt about the inspiration — the passing of Theiss left Springsteen as the ‘last man standing’ of his first band, the Castiles:
“Rock of ages lift me somehow
Somewhere high and hard and loud
Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd
I’m the last man standing now”
At this the halfway point of Letter To You, Springsteen could have chosen to continue to explore the prevalent narrative in the first six songs or, veer in a slightly different direction. The first song to address his move is “House Of A Thousand Guitars.”
When the track listing for Letter To You was revealed, curiosity arose on my part about “House Of 1000 Guitars” — this was the exact title of a powerful tune by Willie Nile. The connection I naturally made was that Springsteen was covering Nile’s song, as using the same unique title for a different song didn’t make sense to me. Well, Springsteen DID take the same title, but wrote a different song! I’d rather he had covered the Nile song, because speaking solely on musical merits, for me “House” is the weakest cut on Letter To You. It does, however, have something to say lyrically, including offering a possible pointed reference to a former resident of the White House:
“The criminal clown has stolen the throne
He steals what he can never own”
Staying on the narrative, the lyrics are also reflective of memories and friendships:
“Here the bitter and the bored, wake in search of the lost chord
That’ll band us together for as long as there’s stars
Yeah, in the house of a thousand guitars“
The powerful lyrics in “House” can’t connect with a message that is lost within a repetitive melody, a melody that leads nowhere. Another hindrance for the song is that Springsteen squeezes too many words into too few musical spaces. He has said that “House” is among his favorite songs on the album. I believe that it will likely carry itself better in a live performance.
Following “House Of A Thousand Guitars” is “Rainmaker.” Here, Springsteen unveils a story about false prophets, and how easily the public can fall for con men, how in desperate times they grab at any olive branch. There is religious symbolism again:
“People come for comfort or just to come
Taste the dark sticky potion or hear the drums
Hands raised to Yahweh to bring the rain down
He comes crawlin’ ‘cross the dry fields like a dark shroud”
The song’s lyrics also allude to the “clown” that was seen in “House Of A Thousand Guitars”:
“Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad,
They’ll hire a rainmaker“
“Rainmaker” benefits from a strong melody and lead vocal, while the E Street Band provides the perfect aural surrounding, helping the song fall into an easy groove. The song connects on all levels.
“If I Was The Priest” is the next “old” song to find its way onto the album, and Springsteen is in full 1970s lyrical spin:
“And Jesus is standing in the doorway
In a buckskin jacket, boots and spurs so fine
He says, ‘We need you son tonight up in Dodge City
‘Cause there’s just too many outlaws trying to work the same line’”
If this was one of Springsteen’s audition songs for Columbia Records executive John Hammond, it is understandable how upon hearing the tune, Hammond was bowled over with visions of a ‘new Dylan.’ At first listen, “Priest” would seem to be an odd fit for a Springsteen album in 2020. But it works. The power of the E Street Band on the song, including a guitar solo from Little Steven, can not be understated. Other versions of the song have been floating around for years, but the version here stands out.
Three songs remain on the album, and two of them, “Ghosts” and “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” draw heavily on the album’s theme of loss. That’s a pretty somber closing statement to leave with the listener. As a pure E Street Band song, “Ghosts,” for this listener, is the album’s piece-de-resistance.
Once more we hear (and see) a group of musicians working on overdrive, with Springsteen fiercely growling lyrics that make an emotional connection to the head and heart:
“I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I’m alive and I’m out here on my own
I’m alive and I’m comin’ home”
While it has echoes of remorse, “Ghosts” also contains a message of optimism. Springsteen has spoken openly about how while his friends may be physically gone, they are never far from his thoughts. They are part of his motivation and continue to play a part in his life:
“I hear the sound of your guitar
Comin’ from the mystic far
Stone and the gravel in your voice
Come in my dreams and I rejoice“
“It’s your ghost moving through the night
Your spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side, your love and I’m alive“
The strength of “Ghosts” also lies in a melody that rings in your ear long after the song ends — a sign of a powerful song.
“Song For Orphans,” the album’s penultimate song, is another early composition unearthed in a new form. While “If I Was the Priest” and “Janey Needs A Shooter” are also a bombast of words, you have to go back to Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, to find an example where he has been as Dylan-esque, or even back to The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle when he was as Van Morrison-esque. The melody on “Song For Orphans” even has traces of Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” What is Springsteen saying on the tune? Givenit was written at a time by a young man with rambling thoughts and images, one wonders whether Springsteen could even offer a proper explanation. He left this writing style a long time ago:
“The aurora will shine your way,
The confederacy’s in my name now
The hounds are held at bay,
The axis needs a stronger arm
Do you feel your muscles play?”
It’s fair to ask why Springsteen chose to revisit three (almost) 50-year old songs, and bring them back to life on this record. The songs do offer a slight diversion from the overall theme of the album, but they also form a connection to his songwriting youth, a reckoning with the past, and tying-up of loose ends. Maybe that’s what he had in mind.
As we reach the last song on the album, the question that was raised about opening on a quiet note with “One Minute You’re Gone,” can be brought up again, ending with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” Both carry a heavy-hearted message, but this time around we have the full sound of the E Street Band to complement the song.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” also becomes the perfect bookend because it completes the story and song cycle. I had to ask myself whether it also served as a release for Springsteen — a way for him to say see you later instead of a more final goodbye to his friends. Old memories do die hard. The song is light musically, but it proves how adept Springsteen is at attaching emotion to his lyrics, and his knack for making the simplest of melodies come to life:
“I’ll see you in my dreams,
When all the summers have come to an end
I’ll see you in my dreams,
We’ll meet and live and love again
For death is not the end,
And I’ll see you in my dreams.”
The Power and the Glory of the E Street Band
As has been stated, a major reason that Letter To You works on so many levels is the contribution of the E Street Band. Max Weinberg‘s drumming is powerful throughout, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren provide perfect coloring with their guitar work, Garry Tallent fills the grooves with melodic bass lines, Roy Bittan complements each song with exciting flourishes, and though Jake Clemons and Charles Giordano aren’t in the spotlight often, when needed, they deliver beautifully. Of special note also is Patti Scialfa’s understated backup vocals, more clear in the video documentary than on the actual record.
The fact that the recordings happened so quickly is a testament not only to the E Street Band’s abilities and their vitality, but how their shared history allowed them to take Springsteen’s guidance, and help form and guide the album to completion. It couldn’t have been easy for Springsteen to present these themes to the band and for them to play songs that had so many impassioned and sensitive touchpoints.
A Word of Acceptance
We all reach that age when we realize that the road ahead is short, and the road of life we’ve traveled, we’ll never see again. Our personal growth comes from understanding that our mortality is not something abstract, but instead, a very real part of our existence. For some, being able to express those emotions in words or music, is cathartic. It’s these thoughts that I believe primarily ignited and guided Springsteen to writing Letter To You.
Springsteen’s attempt to address the sadness as well the thankfulness in a musical way brought him to Letter To You. It’s a chapter that he needed to address, that needed closure. For him and in a way for each of us, the album is a window to acknowledgment and acceptance: acknowledging with gratitude those who paved the road we’re currently traveling, and acceptance with gratitude to those who cleared the way for the roads that lie ahead of us.
The ghosts of loved ones run through Letter To You. They form an important story. At times it’s a message that’s hard for fans to receive, but with Springsteen, it’s always been about making an emotional connection through his stories. In the end, it’s the strength of that emotion that carries the album.