Bruce Springsteen’s 20th studio album reconvenes his most celebrated backing musicians, the E Street Band: ignoring 2014’s stopgap collection of covers, outtakes and reworked old material High Hopes, it’s their first album proper since 2012’s Wrecking Ball. It’s been trailed for some time, not least during the promotional campaign for Springsteen’s last album, Western Stars: presumably talk of its forthcoming appearance was to mollify Boss fans who thought Western Stars’ easy-listening country was insufficiently Springsteen-esque.
This isn’t an accusation anyone will level at Letter to You, an album that could be no more Springsteen-esque without sounding like self-parody. It opens with a gruffly-sung acoustic ballad, in which downbound trains, the edge of town and going down to the river figure heavily, and follows that with a title track that nods at every one of the three artists Springsteen himself identified as key influences on his breakthrough Born to Run: his voice takes on a distinctly Roy Orbison-ish quaver as it hits the chorus; the organ can’t help but recall Bob Dylan’s thin wild mercury sound of the mid-60s; there’s a sudden flourish of castanets at its close that’s obviously doffing its hat to the productions of Phil Spector.
The back-to-fundamentals approach is underlined by the presence of three hugely enjoyable songs that date back to a 1972 demo. One, Janey Needs a Shooter, was recorded in various different arrangements for every one of Springsteen’s classic 70s albums from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle to The River, but always failed to make the cut. If I Was the Priest and Song for Orphans are more obscure, although you can see why the latter didn’t come out at the time. If you were a young early 70s singer-songwriter, keen not to attract the potentially fatal New Dylan tag, then it was probably best not to release a song with a melody that sounds like a cut-and-shut of My Back Pages and Chimes of Freedom. Anyone who thinks Springsteen is surely above such a light-fingered approach to songwriting these days is directed to Ghosts, whose riff recalls Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’.
Over the last 20 years, Springsteen has displayed a tendency to reunite with the E Street Band at key moments, when he thinks their ability to rouse serves a wider purpose. They were called upon for 2002’s meditation on 9/11 and its aftermath, The Rising, and Wrecking Ball’s livid evisceration of the “bastards” behind the 2007 financial crisis. Clearly the desire to stir his audience is also a factor here. A man who’s threatened to emigrate if Trump gets a second term, Springsteen hasn’t released an album days before the US presidential election by accident, and you don’t have to spend too long puzzling over who Rainmaker is directed at: the titular figure who “says night’s day and day’s night”, the supporters keen to apportion blame, who “come to make damn sure this mean season’s got nothing to do with them”.
But, for all the E Street Band’s sturm and drang, much of Letter to You feels focused inward, rather than outward. Springsteen is 71 and frequently sounds haunted: by the deaths of bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons; by the fact that he’s now the only living member of his first band, the Castiles. The latter are eulogised on Last Man Standing, perhaps the album’s best track, a depiction of low-rent 60s gigs flecked with vibrant detail. The shadow of their guitarist George Theiss – who died in 2018 – won’t leave Springsteen alone: Ghosts and I’ll See You in My Dreams find him rifling through Theiss’s old guitars, amps and clothes latching on to the power of music and the promise of an afterlife respectively as consolations for loss.
The 2018 show Springsteen on Broadway emphasised the gulf between Bruce Springsteen and the blue-collar characters he usually sings about: a man “tinged with fraud”, who became “absurdly successful writing about something of which he had absolutely no experience”. So it’s intriguing to hear him singing about himself and sounding remarkably like a character from a Bruce Springsteen song: yearning for the glory days of the past, buoyed by old music – The Power of Prayer hymns the Drifters’ This Magic Moment – and uncertain about the future.
The issue with all of this, of course, is that it requires prior knowledge to get the full effect. Letter to You is not an album to snare new listeners, compounded by the fact that it contains a lot of good songs but no spectacular breakout hit: House of a Thousand Guitars, the most ostensibly anthemic track, is a little too hokey in its evocation of a gig (“good souls from near and far” meeting “in search of the lost chord”) to stick. But then, that isn’t its aim: from its title down, it’s clearly intended as a message to longstanding Springsteen fans, the sound of an artist hunkering down in troubled times. That also represents a scaling down of ambition, but judged by its own criteria, Letter to You is a success.
This week Alexis listened toVideosphere
The title track from a debut album by Foals-affiliated Londoner Andrew Halford, Videosphere is hazily lovely, smearing the boundaries between electronica and shoegazing.