Published Oct 22, 2020A reverential, loyal dude, Bruce Springsteen has long carried himself like someone who owes his good fortune to those who came before him. As singular and iconic as his musical trajectory has been, Springsteen has shaped his songs and his live revue of a show distinctively and originally — feats that may scream 'That's the Boss!' but bear traces of all of his musical and cultural influences. Some emanate from heroes he's never met, some from the friends and players who got him started in his earliest days in New Jersey.
On Letter to You, Springsteen is at his rawest and most reflective. He and his beloved E Street Band sought some kind of urgency here, recording 12 songs in four days, live off-the-floor with no overdubs in the Boss' home studio. They've never taken such a tack before, and based on the record's tribute to both youthful, auspicious expression and those who are lucky to tend to enduring legacies, this is one of rock's finest writers — following up both a memoir and an acclaimed run for his storytelling Broadway show — with a song-based historical meditation, that finds him getting meta about his whole public life.
On the powerful "Last Man Standing," Springsteen acknowledges his boyhood friends from his first band, the Castiles, all of whom have now passed away. He writes with a survivor's guilt but also of the joyful persistence it takes for someone to never surrender their dreams to some boring, waking life. The same impulse has surely guided Springsteen to unearth three songs from his early-'70s, solo-acoustic demo for Columbia Records: "Janey Needs a Shooter," "If I Was the Priest" and "Song for Orphans."
It's one thing for a 71-year-old to sound as strong vocally as Springsteen does; it's another to hear him transform into his 20-year-old self, slipping into that younger way of singing, phrasing, and particular way of vocab-rapping (on early Springsteen records, he attempted to use all of the words in the English language available at the time). If the fidelity of the recordings was a bit rougher, we'd be fooled into thinking these were vintage performances, though the band are better now than they were pre-1975.
It's a bit bizarre, Bruce Springsteen emerging with a love letter to the very act of being in a rock'n'roll band with your friends and storming the world with a tight, killer show, when all of that has been suspended. That said, we need this reminder about the spirit that galvanizes us and the spark that first got us into music, as both performers and fans. Letter to You may well be Springsteen addressing his most significant bandmates and his audience with love, but it may as well be something he wrote and sent ahead to 2020. (Columbia)