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Review: Bruce Springsteen’s - Letter to you

Faline Bobier

January 4, 2021

“I’m in the middle of a 45-year conversation with these men and women I’m surrounded by and with some of you. Now with some of you I suppose we’ve only recently started speaking. But either way I’ve tried to make that conversation essential, fun and entertaining. I started playing the guitar because I was looking for someone to speak to and correspond with. I guess that worked out better than my wildest dreams.

All I know, is after all this time, I still feel that burning need to communicate. It’s there when I wake every morning. It walks along side of me throughout the day. And it’s there when I go to sleep each night.

Over the past 50 years it’s never once ceased. Owing to what, I don’t really know. Is it loneliness, hunger, ego, ambition, desire, a need to be felt and heard, recognized? All of the above. All I know is it is  one of the most consistent impulses in my life. As reliable as the rhythmic beating of my own heart is my need to talk to you.”

Bruce Springsteen’s most recent album, Letter to you, recorded with the E Street Band in his studio, is a fitting coda to 2020 but also looks forward to our collective New Year. It speaks heartbreakingly of all that has been lost in 2020 but also to hope amid the horror.

It’s not an overtly political album but there are hints throughout of the current state of affairs in his country:  “The criminal clown has stolen the throne/He steals what he can never own”. These lines from House of a Thousand Guitars refer of course to the Orange Monster who will soon be leaving the White House, but not without leaving behind him the wreckage of four years of his criminal neglect while ordinary Americans are dying and the fires of racism, which are set to continue burning long after he is gone.

In the song Rainmaker Springsteen speaks to the appeal of a Trump-like figure to people who see little hope when they look around them:

Parched crops dying 'neath a dead sun
We've been praying but no good comes
The dog's howling, home's stripped bare
We've been worried but now we're scared

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

In addition to the new songs on the album he includes a couple of songs – If I Was The Priest and Song for Orphans – that were written when he was in his early 20s and so take him back to the beginnings of his journey. They are songs that remind of his earliest album – Greetings from Asbury Park – in their wordy poetics. Apparently, Bob Dylan said to one of Springsteen’s producers at the time, “He’d better be careful or he’s going to use all the words in the English language.” Springsteen says he paid attention to this because Dylan was always one of his mentors, ‘the brother I never had’.

The song Ghosts speaks to the inevitability of death for a band that has been together for 40+years. Clearly the ghosts of Clarence Clemons (the Big Man), saxophonist and showman in the E Street Band for most of its existence and Danny Federici, organ, glockenspiel, and accordion player and a founding member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band are still a living presence.

One of the impetuses behind the new album, as Springsteen speaks about in Thom Zimny’s documentary about the making of the studio album, was the death of George Theiss, last member of his first band, The Castiles, that existed between 1965-69. He writes about this in the song Last Man Standing – a song about what it feels like to be the only one remaining after all this time.

Of course, coming at the time it does, with Springsteen the age he is (turning 71 in 2020), Letter to you is also a look back and a rumination on mortality. Facing the inevitability of death as one does more clearly at the age of 71 than in youth doesn’t mean, however, that this album isn’t relevant, or that it is only a downer.

Although Springsteen is speaking of his own specific trajectory in Letter to you, I think it feels relevant to right now and to many of us, because this year has been a year of loss and difficulty. When he sings in I’ll See You in My Dreams:

When all our summers have come to an end
I'll see you in my dreams
We'll meet and live and love again

it speaks to so many who have lost someone during the pandemic. It is particularly galling when people have left us much before their time or without being able to say goodbye to loved ones and when much of this suffering can be laid at the feet of incompetent governments and the priorities of a system which places much more emphasis on the ability to continue the profit-making machine than on the safety of ordinary workers who generate these profits for the likes of Jeff Bezos, Galen Weston et al.

It’s no surprise that Springsteen and the E Street Band would have chosen I’ll See You in My Dreams as one of the songs to perform on a recent episode of SNL. It was a message to all those watching that those they have lost will not be forgotten.

This album is also in the end a hopeful one. That hope rests, as almost always in Springsteen’s music, with the power of ordinary people. House of a Thousand Guitars is a paean to the power of music and to the power of ordinary people to set the house right again:
House of a thousand guitars, house of a thousand guitars
Brother and sister wherever you are
We'll rise together till we find the spark
That'll light up the house of a thousand guitars

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