After Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band released their 2014 album “High Hopes,” The Boss was trapped in a particularly sticky episode of writer’s block. He could write a bestselling memoir, a Tony Award winning musical and a number-one solo album, but he couldn’t produce material for The E Street Band. Nothing was working.
The spell was broken by two events — one tragic and one bizarre. In 2018, a man named George Theiss died in North Carolina. In a previous life, Theiss fronted The Castiles, Springsteen’s first band. Springsteen made it big, and Theiss died prematurely of terminal cancer, little known to anyone besides Springsteen-ologists and New Jersey bar band freaks.
Then, weeks before Springsteen stood by Theiss’s deathbed, “an Italian kid” handed him a custom guitar in Manhattan. The guitar sat unplayed in Springsteen’s living room until, months later, he randomly picked it up, wandered around his house and sketched a handful of songs. At the encouragement of pianist Roy Bittan, Springsteen left them unfleshed and unrecorded. In November 2019, the band gathered at his home studio and recorded “Letter to You” in a four-day live frenzy, a remarkable feat considering “Born to Run” (the song, not the album) took six months to record.
“Letter to You,” released Oct. 23, reflects the explosion of loss, creativity and oddity that inspired it. “Last Man Standing,” the first song Springsteen wrote, explores Theiss’s death and Bruce’s own survivor’s guilt for eclipsing his old partner. Memories of their Castiles haunt this tune: “Out of school and out of work/Thrift store jeans and flannel shirts/The lights go down and we face the crowd.” A lifetime later, “I’m the last man standing now.”
Mortality continues throughout the 71-year-old’s writing. “Letter to You” opens with “One Minute You’re Here,” a fitting thematic score. Its lyrics offer a locomotive metaphor for death’s march: “Big black train comin' down the track/Blow your whistle long and long/One minute you're here/One minute you’re gone.” Time and death whistle on, we’re reminded, in this solo-acoustic indulgence — a musical exception to the album at large, and thankfully so. From its lethargy we’re delivered roaring into the eponymous track.
“Letter for You” distills Springsteen’s lessons learned from a hard life. Depression and loss and hope — “hard times and good… fears and doubts… all the hard things I found out… sunshine and rain… happiness and pain” — are blended into a potent mix of “ink and blood.” That brew is powerful for an artist of Springsteen’s caliber, and “Letter to You” delivers.
For the class of fans who troll and trawl for bootlegs of some obscure song from a forgotten performance, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans” are long overdue additions to Springsteen’s official catalogue. The trio are outtakes from the 1970s which recall Springsteen’s early, impressionist, Dylan-like phase. They’re palpably nostalgic and a reminder that some of the artist’s greatest work was never released — and that most of it was written 30 to 40 years ago.
Next, “Rainmaker” imagines a conman hired by farmers to deliver rain during a drought. “They come for the smile, the firm handshake/They come for the raw chance of a fair shake.” Of course, they get a raw deal. In the end, Springsteen remarks that “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad/They'll hire a rainmaker.” Its message is identical to 1982’s “Reason to Believe”: “at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe.” Where that leads people has always been a central question of Sprinsteen’s songwriting. Sometimes characters settle down and start families, and sometimes they kill gas station clerks.
There is no question whom Springsteen, a performer at both of Obama’s inaugurations, is referencing in “Rainmaker.” Bruce is no stranger to politics, but not even George W. Bush, castigated on 2008’s “Magic,” drew such ire.
“Ghosts,” the song most sure to become a staple of live shows, embraces the band’s lost comrades: Thiess, personal assistant Terry McGovern, Federici and The Big Man. It consecrates them in the music they made: “I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide/Meet you, brother and sister, on the other side.” This song is both a eulogy and a scance. And for listeners dogged by this year, “Ghosts” is similar to Kendrick Lamar’s “I” in that, sometimes, when driving with open windows at slightly-too-high speeds, it’s good for the soul to scream “I love myself” or “I’m alive!”
The final song, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” more reflectively remembers these ghosts; recently, Springsteen admitted to seeing them around his house.
Much of Bruce Springsteen’s work is haunted: by ghosts, sure, but more often by fathers and sons, bad decisions, wrecked marriages and lost friends. This is the man who asked, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Ghosts aren’t just relics belonging to another world; they occupy our own spaces and the ones Bruce Springsteen creates, where American men cash in their dreams for cars and women and end up broken and disappointed. They look fitfully for “Better Days” or a “Reason to Believe” and end up “Chasin' Wild Horses.” How do they fare? More often than not, they end up “on the wrong side of that line.”
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But there’s always, always redemption: the chance “to wash these sins off our hands” and “go racing in the street.”
“Letter to You” is the sum of all these experiences. It is triumph that remembers “hard times and good.” It evokes nostalgia, reintroduces us to old friends and recalls old styles. And it rocks with a frenzy and urgency that is sorely missed in the works of aging rockers. Ultimately, it is the fiery effort of a group of septuagenarians who, if nothing else, believe absolutely that redemption happens in the same room as a Fender Telecaster, a Hammond B-3 Organ and a backbeat.