Yesterday, Bruce Springsteen released his 20th studio album Letter to You and his first with The E Street Band since High Hopes from January 2014 – wow, until I read that in some reviews, it had not occurred to me it’s been more than six years! While musically speaking Letter to You doesn’t include anything we haven’t heard from Springsteen before, I just love this album!
At 71 years, The Boss demonstrates he still knows how to write great rock songs. The E Street Band sound as mighty sweet as ever and once again prove why they are the ideal backing band for Springsteen. And, yes, admittedly, when you lose a loved one and live through a seemingly never-ending pandemic, listening to great music that in many ways sounds familiar provides reassurance that some things don’t change. I take some stability during these unsettling times!
“The impetus for a lot of the material was the loss of my good friend George Theiss,” Springsteen told Apple Music. Theiss was the guitarist of The Castiles, the first “serious” band Springsteen joined in 1965. According to Castiles.net, the other members were Paul Popkin (guitar, vocals), Frank Marziotti (bass) and Bart Haynes (drums). In May 1966, Springsteen had his first-ever studio session with The Castiles, during which they recorded two original songs. With the death of Theiss in July 2018, Springsteen remains the band’s only surviving member.
“There’s aging and loss of people as time goes by, and that’s a part of what the record is,” Springsteen further pointed out. “And then at the same time, you’re sort of celebrating the fact that the band goes on and we carry their spirits with us.”
But while much of Letter to You sounds familiar, there is one thing that’s new. “It was a great project for us because I don’t think we ever played live together in the studio and then kept everything that we did on the full take – all the singing, all the playing, it’s really, it’s the E Street Band really completely live. And I overdubbed a few solos and things, but it’s really, it’s really the band in one shot,” Springsteen told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe during a 1-hour interview. I’ve yet to listen to all of it. You can watch it here.
The current line-up of The E Street Band features Steven Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Roy Bittan (piano, vocals), Charles Giodarno (organ, vocals), Patti Scialfa (vocals), Jake Clemons (saxophone), Garry Tallent (bass, vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums, vocals). Except for Clemons and Giodarno, this line-up has been in place since 1995. Van Zandt’s, Bittan’s, Tallent’s and Weinberg’s tenures go back much further to the mid-’70s. Obviously, this is a tight band, and it shows! Let’s get to some music.
Here’s the opener One Minute You’re Here. “It’s unusual to start a record with its quietest song,” Springsteen commented to Apple Music. “The record really starts with ‘Letter to You,’ but there’s this little preface that lets you know what the record is going to encompass. The record starts with ‘One Minute You’re Here’ and then ends with ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ which are both songs about mortality and death. It was just sort of a little tip of the hat to where the record was going to go and a little slightly connected to [2019’s] Western Stars. It was a little transitional piece of music.”
Since I already covered the album’s great title track in a previous Best of What New installment, I’m skipping it here and go to Janey Needs a Shooter, one of three tracks on Letter to You, which Springsteen wrote prior to his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. All other songs were written more recently. “We were working on a lot of stuff that I have in the vault to put out again at some time, and I went through almost a whole record of pre-Greetings From Asbury Park music that was all acoustic, and these songs were inside them,” Springsteen said. “The guys came in and I said, ‘Okay. Today we’re going to record songs that are 50 years old, and we’re going to see what happens.’ The modern band playing those ideas that I had as a 22-year-old—and for some reason it just fit on the record, because the record skips through time.” Well, I wholeheartedly agree and love the rich sound of that tune!
Last Man Standing is a tribute to George Theiss. “That particular song was directly due to George’s passing and me finding out that out of that group of people, I’m kind of here on my own, honoring the guys that I learned my craft with between the ages of 14 and 17 or 18,” Springsteen said. “Those were some of the deepest learning years of my life—learning how to be onstage, learning how to write, learning how to front the band, learning how to put together a show, learning how to play for all different kinds of audiences at fireman’s fairs, at union halls, at CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] dances, and just really honing your craft.” This is the perfect tune for some sax work, and Jake Clemons makes his uncle proud.
Next up: House of a Thousand Guitars. “Every piece of music has its demands—what tone in my voice is going to feel right for this particular piece of music—and you try to meet it in the middle,” Springsteen explained. “That’s one of my favorite songs on the record; I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s at the center of the record and it speaks to this world that the band and I have attempted to create with its values, its ideas, its codes, since we started. And it collects all of that into one piece of music, into this imaginary house of a thousand guitars.”
The last track I’d like to call out is the above noted I’ll See You in My Dreams, which together with One Minute You’re Here bookends the album. “I remember a lot of my dreams and I always have,” Springsteen said. “But that song was basically about those that pass away don’t ever really leave us. They visit me in my dreams several times a year. Clarence will come up a couple times in a year. Or I’ll see Danny. They just show up in very absurd, sometimes in abstract ways in the middle of strange stories. But they’re there, and it’s actually a lovely thing to revisit with them in that way. The pain slips away, the love remains, and they live in that love and walk alongside you and your ancestors and your life companions as a part of your spirit. So the song is basically about that: ‘Hey. I’m not going to see you at the next session, but I’ll see you in my dreams.'”
Letter to You was recorded over just four days in November 2019 at Springsteen’s home studio. The album was co-produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, who also produced Western Stars, and co-produced High Hopes and predecessor Wrecking Ball from March 2012. Coinciding with Letter to You is the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You, a 90-minute documentary about the making of the album. It’s available on Apple TV+. If you’re a subscriber, you can watch it here. There are also two free trailers.
Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Castiles.net; YouTube