Review: Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You

This is a little embarrassing, but I still haven’t listened to the new Bruce Springsteen album from last year. So I’m going to give it a first spin right now and just jot down some thoughts as it goes. I’ll probably look at lyrics as I’m listening too. Important disclaimer for some people. Some songs I listened to more than once before moving on, but nearly everything I’ve written here was on the first listen of each track.

Part 1: All the tracks from favorite to least favorite

Letter to You

Really like:
I’ll See You in My Dreams
Burnin’ Train
Last Man Standing
Song for Orphans

The Power of Prayer
One Minute You’re Here
If I Was the Priest

Janey Need a Shooter

House of a Thousand Guitars

Part 2: Track-by-track evaluation

Track 1: One Minute You’re Here

I thought I knew just who I was
And what I’d do but I was wrong
One minute you’re here
Next minute you’re gone.

Starts off with just solo acoustic guitar. Almost whispered singing. Some orchestration after first chorus, then more instrumentation, like acoustic piano and tom-toms and tambourine. Mellow and pretty!

Track 2: Letter to You

I took all the sunshine and rain
All my happiness and all my pain
The dark evening stars and the morning sky of blue
And I sent it in my letter to you

Big and rocking. Full E Street Band in effect. It’s ringing, driving, and chiming the way all the good, huge Bruce songs are. It’s going to be an enormous concert favorite. Ooh the organ is sweet in the instrumental after the first chorus. This is what a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band song is supposed to sound like. I haven’t heard a Bruce song like this in decades.

Track 3: Burnin’ Train

With our shared faith, rising dark and decayed
Take me and shake me from this mortal cage

It sounds like a song about dying but I’m not sure. It’s one of Bruce’s faster songs. Great drumming by Max and cool guitar solo at the end by someone; I’m guessing Nils.

Track 4: Janey Needs a Shooter

So I held her real close, she was more saint than a ghost
And told her I so long had been prepared for her

This song goes back to the early 70s but I’ve never heard it. The lyrics are dark as heck but the melody and instrumentation are uplifting and hopeful. It’s a tough listen. I don’t know how I feel about it. I imagine singing along would make me feel weird.

Track 5: Last Man Standing

You pack your guitar and have one last beer
With just the ringing in your ears

Big, hopeful, uplifting, and wistful. Max sounds great here. Jake Clemons plays like his dad.

Track 6: The Power of Prayer

It’s a fixed game without any rules
An empty table on a ship of fools
I’m holding hearts, I play the pair
I’m going all in ’cause I don’t care

There’s a lot of religious imagery in these songs. The solo piano intro makes it sound like a Styx song at first! Man, it sounds like it’s the most unironic Bruce ever, but then right in the middle is this fixed game refrain, sung twice in a row, kind of cynical, kind of nihilistic, kind of whatever-will-be. I love the tension. I love where Roy Bittan’s piano is mixed here. In most of the album, in fact. I really don’t like the second-to-last line: “As Ben E. King’s voice fills the air.” Cheesy.

Track 7: House of a Thousand Guitars

House of a thousand guitars, house of a thousand guitars
Brother and sister wherever you are
We’ll rise together till we fire the spark
That’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars

Wow. This solo piano opening and first verse sound like a 70s Diana Ross or Crystal Gayle ballad. Full band kicks in after the first chorus. I don’t dig the background vocals. The chorus is cheesy and just not good. Ew. Ick. This sounds like an E Street tribute band; I’m not kidding. Even Bruce’s vocals are bad.

Track 8: Rainmaker

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker

Holy cow; who’s playing slide in the intro? Oh yeah this sounds like it’s from The Rising. In fact it sounds like “The Rising.” I’m digging this chorus and bridge, although the bridge sounds a lot like “Darlington County.” First song on the album that sounds political.

Track 9: If I Was the Priest

Well there’s a light on yonder mountain and it’s calling me to shine
There’s a girl over by the water fountain ’cause she’s asking to be mine

Most folky sounding song on the album so far. Ah, I just read this song was written in 1970 or 1971, which makes sense. Bruce was trying to be Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan then. Seriously, though, it sounds like an outtake from Western Stars. Good backing vocals in the last choruses. Harmonica leading to the outro, of course. It’s nice. Nice guitar solo at the end! Miami Steve or Nils? Song is epically long though; kind of lyrically self-indulgent. Tighten up, Bruce!

Track 10: Ghosts

I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide
Meet you brother and sister on the other side

This song really moves. It’s going to be another concert fave. Hand claps. Not a fan on an album version. Long la-la-la fadeout ensures it’ll be a hit at concerts. Jake Clemons and Charles Giordano (organ) rocking in fadeout.

Track 11: Song for Orphans

Well sons they search for fathers, but the fathers are all gone
The lost souls search for saviors, but saviors don’t last long
Those nameless questless renegade brats who live their lives in song
They run the length of a candle with a goodnight whisper then they’re gone

Bruce considered this for inclusion on Born to Run. It’s epically long as well, but the things I dislike about “If I Was the Priest” I really like in “Song for Oprhans.” I don’t know why, but it all works better here. Dylan-like harmonica in the outro. This song reminds me a lot of Dylan, and of other songs by musicians I love who love Dylan.

Track 12: I’ll See You in My Dreams

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 laugh again

This song sounds like an outtake from Human Touch, an album I was unsure of when I bought it on release day but grew to love, two decades later. Pretty guitar solo after the first chorus, and very Federici-like organ playing. This is a pretty song. I can see Bruce and the E Streeters closing shows with this. Good way to end the album.

Part 3: Summary

This the most E Street sounding album since 2002’s The Rising, and possibly since 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. The album mostly rocks, and it’s just really, really nice to hear Bruce playing the way he should: live in studio with the whole band cranking (most songs on the album were recorded this way). If you don’t think about it too much, you don’t miss the E Streeters who’ve died, as their replacements do more than an able job.

Themes and imagery dominating the lyrics are death, bars (especially at closing), guitars, and songs. I don’t know if Bruce intends this to be a farewell for the E Street Band but it sounds like he’s thinking about it, and how could he not? He’s been at it a long time, and he’s 71 (nooooooooo…).

The production is excellent, and I approve of the prominent placement of Roy Bittan (piano) and Max Weinberg (drums) in the mix. This is Max’s best playing in ages — he tends to sound a little robotic sometimes, so good is he at keeping time — and he sounds like he’s saying it’s not over yet, Bruce. Or maybe he’s saying if they’re going out, they’re going out like this.

Like most Springsteen albums, it will take many listens before I’ll know where to rank it among the others, but I haven’t loved a album of his on first spin as much as this one since The Rising. The best songs on that album are probably better than the best songs on this one, but this is the more consistently good album, track-by-track. This album will never unseat any of his albums leading to Born in the U.S.A., but it could possibly be his best work since.

Rating on first spin: 83 of 100, but I’m starting low to give it somewhere to go as I give it more listens. A score of 80 means “really like,” with 90 meaning “love.”

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