Letter To You
No big secret or deep state conspiracy theory here that resolution, and its equally wiry, equally elusive partner, redemption, have stiffened the backbone of the Springsteen legend since that first time my brother and I saw him at Max’s KC in ’72? ’73? I don’t recall. My memory, like a shanty hut, is getting dusty. But not so Springsteen’s. Thus, we have such late career creative triumphs like his affirming, conversant autobiography (Born To Run, 2016) and the emotive (but sadly prohibitively expensive to attend) Broadway soliloquy, Springsteen On Broadway.
And now there’s Letter To You, as solid and deserving of high standing within the oeuvre as perhaps we have any right to expect from a dude who has pretty much left it all out there on the stage, on the page, and on the record. Who seemed to lay bare our hearts to the sun when we needed the sweet light the most on such memorable records as The Rising, Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Tunnel of Love, Darkness On the Edge of Town, The Seeger Sessions, and Wrecking Ball.
For the first time ever recording all in one room at the same time, this band of brothers sound half their age, and that’s no weak-kneed critic or fanboy bs. E Street cranks and grinds (“Burnin’ Train, “Janey Needs A Shooter,” “If I Was A Priest”) with all the rock majesty they indelibly established from Hoboken to Helsinki, FreeHold to Frankfurt and back again. Should this be the last E Street record with most of its mainstays in attendance, (gone remember are organist Danny Federici and sax man Clarence Clemons) then God bless ‘em. It’s a great way to go out, clang-jangling and hammering away.
Heavy with age and the fullness of years, the cast of characters in Letter To You isn’t the heart weary waitresses, single moms, factory men, gypsies and ne’er do wells coming to terms with their limited years. No, it’s their biographer this time. Or is it? Is any writer ever fully dispatched from those they write about? Are we not all hiding in plain sight in the lives they lead, the loves they love and the shadows they cast?
The Bruce familiars are all fully employed: rain, trains, cars, guitars, backstages and backyard, all of it shaping the whole. Even songs written back in the lean years (when you needed a translator to get through all the words he’d hurl at you at light speed before the leaner, more concise and lasting writing that came after ’75) hold a real time resonance that’s hard to shake, e.g. The Confederacy’s in my name now (from “Song For Orphans”) and the especially relevant There’s still too many outlaws trying to work the same line from the hallucinatory tale of a renegade Virgin Mary in “If I Was A Priest.” And I’d be remiss not to mention the blistering new song “Rainmaker,” about a political snake oil shyster who says white’s black and black’s white / says night’s day and day’s night.
Sure, there’s a clunker or two but our mistakes, as Miles Davis often rasped, make up how we become who we are. Makes that bigger deal of redemption especially important when the day begins to dim. “Ghosts” and “House of a Thousand Guitars” are nice. They rock. They pack a sure gut punch. They hold a warrior’s nostalgia that will go over wildly in sold out arenas should we ever get back to such giddy celebrations. But truthfully Willie Nile’s “House of a Thousand Guitars” is a way better song. Despite all the Viagra swagger they bring to “Janey Needs A Shooter” I can’t get the Warren Zevon/Springsteen version out of my head.
These are small peccadilloes at best and may only vex this lone soul for all I know. Because in many ways, Letter To You, just like the select albums mentioned earlier, is the album so many of us need at this moment. A statement that the beauty of looking back is knowing you did your best, despite the nagging little secrets we all harbor, to tell the truth and move humanity, either by the score or individually, a few steps forward. That’s the gift we owe each other.