If you predicted that, in the fall of 2020, Bon Jovi would release an album about the malaise of Trumpian politics and the demise of the American dream, while fellow Jersey son Bruce Springsteen would put out a record that barely alludes to social justice or the national mood … raise your hand and collect your prize. Springsteen’s not shy about expressing electoral feelings in interviews, and in his best 21st-century album, 2007’s “Magic,” he did respond rather forcefully, if metaphorically, to the Bush years. But on the new “Letter to You,” he’s just responding to … the years. Mortality, it may not surprise us to learn, is even bigger, scarier and more creatively motivating than Donald Trump.
Actually, scratch the “scarier.” Springsteen takes a sanguine attitude toward all-things-must-pass subject matter in the lyrics of “Letter to You,” and also in the monologues he offers about death in the Thom Zimny documentary about the making of the album, “Bruce Springsteen’s Letters to You.” (The Apple TV Plus film arrives simultaneously with the album Oct. 23, basically offering fans the choice of whether they want to experience it first in audio-only format or cinematically annotated form.) It’s not coincidental that his ruminations on facing the end coincide with the first album he’s tracked live in the studio with the E Street Band since 1984’s “Born in the USA” — and the first that really has all the band’s classic sonic tropes in place since “The River.” Even with Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons passed on, their familiar organ and sax sounds will be heard, in abundance, in a way Springsteen was unwilling to commit to for decades before they died while he explored different angles on his sound. You could see returning to this late ‘70s signature sound at full-album length as finally caving and giving the people what they want: comfort food. But what, he should try to feed people experimental cuisine at a wake?
The “service” he’s providing isn’t so much for dearly departed E Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, although they are memorialized, and toasted, in Zimny’s documentary. As Springsteen explains in the film, he was motivated to write this batch of songs by the death two years ago of George Theiss, the last other surviving member of his 1960s New Jersey quintet, the Castiles. Even without filmic verification, fans could readily figure out that’s what this album’s “Last Man Standing” is about from the title, and there are three more songs about the thin veil between life and death where that came from: “Ghosts,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “One Minute You’re Here.”
If devoting a third of a 12-song collection to eulogies sounds a bit much, fear not: the opening “One Minute You’re Here,” presented as a somber, synth-backed prelude about impermanence, is pretty much the only non-corker on the entire album. From that outlier on, no matter how quietly the other songs may open, you can count on Max Weinberg to suddenly interrupt the quiet with his cherry-bomb-style introductory snare battering. Springsteen is nothing if not committed to overloading these mortal-coil meditations with as many of this visceral Weinberg fills as possible, along with blaring triplicate guitars, as proof of life.
Those four songs anchor the record, but Springsteen ventures really afield when he devotes another quarter of the album to numbers he wrote in the early ’70s and only ever demoed at the time. “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” sound so much the product of a different writer — a hilariously wordy one who’s a fanboy for Dylan’s streams of consciousness — that it’s as if Springsteen were interrupting an otherwise straightforward record for a few bizarre covers. But maybe there’s a way to reconcile their inclusion, as giving us some baby Bruce as a kind of yin/yang to complement the elder-statesman Springsteen we get on most of the rest of “Letter to You.” And it does satisfyingly answer the musical question of what his debut, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” would have sounded like if the E Street Band had yet existed. (Answer: It would’ve sounded rip-roaring great, Bob affectations and all.)
If you miss his sociopolitical perspective, it does show up, cloaked in symbolism, in one cynical track, “Rainmaker,” a metaphorical rage against the machine that’s a direct descendent of the title track of “Magic,” in which he again casts politicos as hucksters. The album is otherwise bereft of that kind of commentary, but it’s also devoid of the character songs that filled “Western Stars” last year. Those two albums are his high-water marks, post-“The Rising,” for a reason, and their more literary flourishes are sometimes missed as he keeps things surprisingly personal here. The slow-drawling voiceover of the documentary sometimes makes it seem as if he had a lot of alternate takes from the script of “Springsteen on Broadway” that he still wanted to get out of his system. He hasn’t gotten out of that mode yet, post-Broadway, and maybe he never will: Watching some of his friends and cohorts disappear seems to have given him a different kind of urgency that’s taken away his desire to disappear into character.
There are one or two moments in the album when he seems a little too eager to please with the sonic tropes of the E Street Band —— actually, those couple of moments may all be in the title tracks, which is one of the album’s lesser entries — but many more where the core elements of the band are firing on full cylinders. And amid all the death talk, Springsteen still has some sexy-talk left in him, with “The Power of Prayer” representing this album’s semi-erotic reverie and one of its more glorious moments. You can say he’s written more consistently great albums this century, but the crispness of the recording as well as the performances ensures that “Letter to You” is the best-sounding album he’s made since the 1980s.
“Age brings perspective,” Springsteen says in one of many voiceover monologues in the Zimny film — and his perspective right now seems to be: You can go home again … even if it’s just a warm-chill way station along the route to a greater beyond.
“Letter to You”
Credits: Producers: Ron Aniello with Bruce Springsteen. Mixed by: Bob Clearmountain. Musicians: Bruce Springsteen, Roy Bittan, Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa, Garry Tallent, Stevie Van Zandt, Max Weinberg, Charlie Giordano, Jake Clemons