Think of the recording sessions for Bruce Springsteen’s new album as a proud vestige of the pre-Zoom era.
Due Friday, nearly half a century after he broke out with the scrappy and soulful E Street Band, “Letter to You” comes accompanied by a black-and-white documentary in which we see the 71-year-old singer, ever ready to slap somebody’s back or to lead a round of tequila shots, gather the members of his long-running group in person for five days of shoulder-to-shoulder work at his studio in exurban New Jersey.
The sessions were held last November, before COVID-19 made us all look at other people as potential carriers to be kept at arm’s length. Yet that kind of physical transference was precisely what Springsteen was after by convening his most steadfast collaborators to lay down his 20th LP in a single room in something like real time; the whole idea of the E Street Band going live(-ish) in the studio — especially after such un-rowdy exercises as Springsteen’s memoir, his one-man Broadway production and last year’s polished SoCal meditation “Western Stars” — was about generating an infectious esprit de corps meant to lift the music to a higher plane.
At its best, “Letter to You” shows the gambit worked; there are tunes here, including “Ghosts” and “Burnin’ Train,” that feel more spirited than anything Springsteen has done in years, with a touch of the careening intensity that made him and E Street a legendary live act. And because of all the ways the world has changed since that week in November, beholding his victory can also make you a little sad.
“Kick in the band and side by side / You take the crowd on their mystery ride,” he sings in “Last Man Standing,” a stirring midtempo number about the thrills to be savored both onstage and in the audience at a killer rock show.
Well, maybe next year.
For all its energy of renewal, Springsteen himself was in a mournful place when he began writing “Letter to You,” much of which he’s said tumbled out of him as he pondered the 2018 death of his old friend George Theiss, with whom he formed his first band, the Castiles. “Last Man Standing” pays specific tribute to Theiss in his “snakeskin vest and a sharkskin suit / Cuban heels on your boots”; the song recalls sweaty teenage gigs at the “black-leather clubs all along Route 9.”
Theiss’ death made Springsteen the only surviving member of the Castiles, which got him thinking about music and about mortality; neither is a rare topic for Springsteen, who's spent the last couple of decades alternating still-revved E Street tours with wizened acoustic solo stuff.
But he’s unusually focused on the subjects this time. “House of a Thousand Guitars” describes a concert as a place to “tally my wounds and count the scars”; “The Power of Prayer” depicts a bar where “‘This Magic Moment’ drifts across the floor / As Ben E. King’s voice fills the air.”
In “Ghosts” he again addresses a departed bandmate whose guitar is “coming in from the mystic far,” telling him, “I’m alive and I’m out here on my own / I’m alive and I’m coming home.” And he ends the album with one more journey to the other side in the shimmering “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
As Springsteen clearly hoped would happen — and in a kind of embodiment of the album’s message that music can rescue — the tunes on “Letter to You” get over thanks to the E Street Band, which drives the songs with purpose and provides a level of detail in the arrangements that keeps anything from getting too mopey. (Mopey Springsteen can be great — see the underrated “Western Stars” — but the melodies and words here aren’t vivid enough for the more stripped-down approach he might’ve unwisely taken.)
Layered guitars, rippling piano, tinkly glockenspiel — it’s all there in tracks like “Burnin’ Train” and the deeply earnest title track, not to mention a trio of previously unreleased songs that Springsteen’s musings led him to pull from his archives. Lyrically, “Song for Orphans,” which dates to the early ’70s, is a borderline-embarrassing bit of run-on poetry from a wannabe Dylan: “Now don’t you grow on empty legends or lonely cradle songs / Billy the Kid was just a Bowery boy who made a living twirling his guns.”
But Roy Bittan and Charlie Giordano on keys bring so much churchy energy to the thing that you’re willing to indulge the Boss’ flipping through his back pages. Also deserving of shout-outs on an album we’re told involved minimal overdubs: Max Weinberg, whose drum fills alone can put Springsteen in his sweet spot, and Jake Clemons, whose lusty saxophone licks in “Last Man Standing” ensures that the tune doubles as an ode to his late uncle, E Street’s beloved Clarence Clemons.
The fine playing is particularly valuable given Springsteen's somewhat limited vocal range. On the crooning "Western Stars" he emphasized a new sumptuousness in his singing, hitting notes you swore he'd never tried before. But he's clearly less relaxed against these louder, faster arrangements, and sometimes his effort to be heard over the glorious noise means he's just bellowing — a sound of strength if not of the yearning he once put across.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for a Springsteen album in an election year, “Letter to You” contains just a few fleeting political references, as in “House of a Thousand Guitars,” which mentions a “criminal clown” who’s “stolen the throne,” and the punchy “Rainmaker,” about a con man who “says white’s black and black’s white.”
But then the outside world isn’t where Springsteen is looking here. This is a record about finding life, even amid death, in community.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.