Bruce Springsteen’s 20th studio album, perhaps his final album with the E Street Band, is titled “Letter to You” for a reason: It’s a love letter to fans who grew up with the rock ‘n’ roll icon’s music. After a brief, wonderful detour into orchestrated pop with “Western Stars,” Springsteen returns to guitar-based rock with this inspired 12-song effort that includes nine newly penned tracks and full-band versions of three classic unreleased songs from the early ’70s.
The 71-year-old knows that the generation mesmerized by Addison Rae’s TikToks and older casual pop listeners are not going to suddenly find E Street on the map, so these songs — obsessed with mortality, loss, and memory — are aimed directly at the people who got on the Boss bus at 82nd St. and never got off.
The album was recorded live over four days with minimal guitar overdubs at the end of last year, but the lovely, meditative opening track, “One Minute You’re Here,” sounds like an elegy for the COVID era marked by grief and unexpected absence. In it, the narrator laments, “As the summer wind sings its last song/one minute you’re here/next minute you’re gone.” The track is a fitting companion to “You’re Missing,” written in the aftermath of 9/11. The ache and melancholy are echoed in other tracks, especially “Ghosts,” which broods over lost loved ones while saluting rock ‘n’ roll’s power to remind us why we are alive.
The twangy rocker “Last Man Standing,” with a potent sax solo from Jake Clemons, seems to be an allegory for Springsteen’s fortunate endurance in the rock pantheon after the lamentable loss of so many of his peers from Prince to Bowie to Tom Petty (“You count the names of the missing as you count off time/rock of ages lift me somehow/somewhere high and hard and loud”).
While it’s easy to assume that some of these songs mine Springsteen’s life for inspiration (the late E Streeters Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons), that would be reductive because what’s made Springsteen’s music special is its universality — “my hometown” was our hometowns, the “wreck on the highway” was the unshakeable tragedy we all are burdened by. The specters haunting these songs resonate even more profoundly this year as the world mourns the passing of so many men and women who died alone.
Ultimately, though, the record is a celebration of life and a reminder of how rock ’n’ roll can help transcend grief and loss. The E Street Band sounds rejuvenated with Roy Bittan’s piano work and Charlie Giordano’s resounding organ swirls and swells driving the songs and echoing early E Street magic.
It’s no accident that Springsteen revisits “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “Song for Orphans,” and “If I Was the Priest” (relax grammar nerds, he knows). They are three of his best early unreleased tracks (“Priest” was part of Springsteen’s demo set for John Hammond, who signed him to Columbia Records). The songs are fleshed out and muscled up without diluting their intimacy and narrative pull (unlike 1977′s bloated band recording of “The Promise,” which drained the wounded soul out of the far superior acoustic versions).
The three songs occupy nearly a third of the record’s hour-long running time and their elliptical, allusive writing style — overflowing with internal rhymes, sexual innuendo, and religious imagery — is antithetical to the lean, plain-spoken approach of the rest of the songs on the album.
It’s a big stylistic leap from “Well sweet Virgin Mary runs the Holy Grail saloon/for a nickel she’ll give you whiskey and a personally blessed balloon/and the Holy Ghost is the host with the most, he runs the burlesque show” from “Priest” to the album’s overly earnest “Power of Prayer” (“I’m reachin’ for heaven/We’ll make it there/Cause darlin’ it’s just the power of prayer”).
Over the past decade, the New Jersey native has meticulously documented his life, and these three songs reclaim his past to reaffirm the scope of his artistry while bringing his career full circle.
The record, out Friday, is produced by Springsteen with Ron Aniello, who also co-produced “Wrecking Ball” (2012) and “High Hopes” (2014) and produced “Western Stars,” so there’s a safe familiarity here that sometimes works against it. “House of a Thousand Guitars,” an ode to rock clubs shaking with ringing six-strings, is oddly built around Bittan’s majestic piano and needs more … guitars. If there ever was a time to unleash Nils Lofgren and the band’s three-headed guitar attack, it was here.
In 1992, Springsteen released the angry, sociopolitical “Souls of the Departed” about senseless loss, and nearly 30 years later he’s still pondering the mystery of death, only from a different perspective. On the hymn-like closer “I’ll See You in My Dreams” he sings, “We’ll meet and live and laugh again/I’ll see you in my dreams/up around the riverbend/for death is not the end.” Is it a reference to the afterlife? Does it matter? The album implies that loved ones often vanish without warning or reason, but if we carry the souls of the departed close to our hearts, we will find comfort and a reason to believe life is meaningful.