Bruce Springsteen has been sad before. In 1978 he howled his way through the inner struggle that rested somewhere in the bleak and unforgiving ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’. In 1980 he glumly recounted stories of teenage pregnancy and debilitating unemployment in ‘The River’ and in 1982 he ventured to ‘Nebraska’ to talk about men destined for the electric chair and criminals on the run, while on that album’s masterpiece – the powerfully miserable ‘Atlantic City’ – a smidgen of hope prevailed through one of finest lyrics of the 1980s: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
It’s a message that Springsteen returns to almost 40 years later on the meditative ‘Letter To You’, his triumphant 20th album. The question now, though, as Springsteen hits his 70s and watches good friends and family members pass away, is: do they actually? Where he once sang of the mortality of fictional characters, it’s now that much closer to home. That he seems a touch overwhelmed is no surprise.
In ‘Letter To You’’s accompanying documentary we see Springsteen glumly ruminating on being the last living member of his high school band, The Castiles. The deaths of The E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici also loom large as we watch him record with the remaining members of beloved group in his New Jersey home studio, while snow falls thick and fast outside. That there is now far more road behind him than ahead of him can be felt throughout the entirety of this powerfully heartfelt and deeply personal 12-track collection.
It’s a straight shot to the dark side with album opener ‘One Minute You’re Here’, which finds Springsteen channelling Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-led American sessions of the 1990s, his voice gruffer than ever before and layered over acoustic guitar and piano, pondering on the finite nature of human life. “Big black train coming down the track / Blow your whistle long and long / One minute you’re here / Next minute you’re gone,” huffs a man who’s coming to terms with the fact that his number will one day be up.
‘Last Man Standing’ might refer to Springsteen’s status as the final living Castile – lyrics about faded pictures in scrapbooks, early teenage gigs and “Friday night at union hall” are shot through with sepia-tinted nostalgia – but there is also hope here, most notably in the ferocious sax solo from Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake, which does a damn good job of raising the dead, bringing back the gutsy spirit and impeccable playing of the unforgettable E Street member.
‘Ghosts’ is also dedicated to the Castiles, and sees Springsteen celebrate those who have gone before with a chugging heartland melody and a towering chorus that notes the power of living in the present: “I’m alive / I can feel the blood shiver in my bones / I’m alive and I’m out here on my own.” I’ll See You In My Dreams offers a more spiritual take on the great beyond, Springsteen firmly deciding that “death is not the end” over beefy guitar solos and the E Street Band at full throttle.
Yet perhaps the most interesting celebration of Springsteen’s life and legacy comes not through his modern musings on death and dying, but in his inclusion of a trio of songs from his past. ‘If I Was the Priest’, ‘Janey Needs a Shooter’ and ‘Song For Orphans’ were written almost 50 years ago, before the release of his debut, 1973’s ‘Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ’.
Springsteen rediscovered them when he was putting together a boxset compilation, and has now re-recorded the lot. Hearing a man in his 70s singing songs he wrote when he was in his 20s is an interesting experience, not least for Springsteen himself, who recently told the New York Times: “It’s fun to go back and see how wild my lyric writing was, and how uninhibited it was at a certain moment, and to be able to take that and bring it into the present with the band, and sing it in my voice right now. [It] was a bit of a joy ride.”
Every song is a dream. ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’ is a happy return to the kind of fictional character that peppered his earlier material and full of melodic moments that chime with songs Springsteen would release later in his career. The rolling, theatrical ‘If I Was The Priest’ too is packed full of outlaws, bad boys and a “sweet Virgin Mary” dishing out whiskey at the “Holy Grail Saloon”, who wouldn’t have felt out of place propping up a bar on 1975’s ‘Born To Run’. ‘Song For Orphans’, meanwhile, depicts “cheerleader tramps… high society vamps, ex-heavyweight champs” running loose through a ragged Americana landscape of broken dreams and faded glory.
A powerful synthesis of past and present, ‘Letter To You’ shows us the strength that can be found in sorrow. The result is Springsteen’s finest album since 2002’s ‘The Rising’.
Release date: October 23
Record label: Columbia