Over the past half a century, Bruce Springsteen has played down-on-their-luck working men, wide-eyed youngsters growing up too quickly, local-circuit rockers who can only dream of playing stadiums, Cadillac ranchers tearin’ up the highway for cheap kicks, and on and on in his songs. Although he was playing roles in his songs, the same sense of hope for the future and desire to live a simpler life have connected his characters since the beginning, and those threads have only become more apparent as time has gone on. Now on his 20th album, Letter to You, and at age 71, Springsteen seems to be making sense of all of his brilliant disguises for himself.
The sentimentality that pulses through Letter to You feels more authentic and personal than the fictional stories he dreamt up in his early work or even his recent dives into nostalgia, like his Magic album. He recorded the album in just five days, live in the studio with the E Street Band. Together, they sound comfortable rescaling the Phil Spector-inspired Wall of Sound they built in the Seventies with glockenspiels, saxophone expositions, and thousands of guitars. When Springsteen sings about glory days, this time, they’re his own glory days.
He may have released the orchestral-tinged country rock album Western Stars immediately after his autobiography and reflective Broadway engagement, but it’s only now it sounds like he’s looking back through his songwriting. Many of the record’s lyrics are introspective, private, and sometimes quixotic — he hides his feelings on “Letter to You” in a way he’d never allow a character on Nebraska get away with — and the only reason some of the songs here don’t feel intimate are because they are literal nods to his past, tracks he wrote in 1972, played once or twice, and retired until now. It’s an album with several levels of Bruce Springsteen working through different dreams from different times, all in concert.
At its center is Springsteen today, retracing his steps. The album opens with a flurry of blatant signposts pointing backward — a downbound train flattening a penny he left on the tracks, a “river running along the edge of town” — and the refrain “One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.” The music is somber, built on acoustic guitars and synthy strings, and his voice sounds pensive as he confesses, “Baby, baby, baby, I’m so alone/Baby, baby, baby, I’m coming home,” possibly to the ghosts of Clarence Clemons, George Theiss of his Sixties band the Castiles, or maybe even himself. He similarly grapples with mortality on “Last Man Standing,” looking at faded pictures of “when you were hard and young and proud … running raw and loud,” and name-checking gigs he played at Jersey Shore dives — all with the punchline, “I’m the last man standing now.” And he closes the album with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a more upbeat, folky number that finds him echoing Dylan, declaring “death is not the end.”
In between all the self-therapy, Springsteen prays. A church organ runs through “House of a Thousand Guitars,” as he delivers a sermon about the healing power of rock & roll: “Here, the bitter and the bored wake in search of the lost chord that’ll band us together … in the house of a thousand guitars.” These are the same thousand guitars Springsteen summoned by name on Magic’s “Radio Nowhere,” the spirit of which goes back to the guitar he taught to talk on “Thunder Road.” And on Letter to You’s “The Power of Prayer,” a lilting, gentle rocker, he praises Ben E. King and the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” as an answered prayer and exclaims, “I’m reachin’ for heaven, we’ll make it there,” to his lover (probably someone like Wendy from “Born to Run”).
And then there’s “Ghosts,” perhaps the album’s strongest, hardest-rocking homily, in which he sings about hearing “the sound of your guitar comin’ in from the mystic far,” building up the song and detailing the rituals of performing until it explodes as he and the E Street Band sing together, “by the end of the set we leave no one alive.” The song ties together the two main themes of Bruce Springsteen right now — reckoning with formative years and finding salvation in rock & roll — as he sings, “I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide,” amid shivering piano and glocks before exploding again.
There are also songs on Letter to You where he lets his ghosts possess him. Several tunes date back to Springsteen’s “New Dylan” days in the early Seventies, when he thought he was paid by the word. Stylistically, they’re very different from the confessional nature of the rest of Letter to You, but since they’re still Springsteen songs and the E Street Band is playing them live, just as they did nearly 50 years ago, they never feel out of place. “Song for Orphans” is a madcap, country-rock retelling of history’s losers — the Axis losing its grip, the Confederacy giving up — as he sings cleverly of sons in search of fathers “but their fathers are all gone.” Meanwhile, “If I Was the Priest” is a sacrilegious tale of devolution where the Virgin Mary gives out personally blessed balloons and Jesus wears a buckskin jacket, and “Janey Needs a Shooter,” with all its gospel organ and harmonica glory accompanying a bizarre story about predatory doctors, priests, and cops while Springsteen plays guardian angel to a vulnerable girl. It’s all a bit lofty, but they’re also some of the best, most Springsteeny songs here.
The only times when he steps out of his own interior are when he seems to be taking metaphorical jabs at Donald Trump. Never one to bite his tongue in an election year (even at the risk of an election biting back at him, as it did in 1984 with the way Reagan embraced “Born in the U.S.A.”), Springsteen describes a demagogue who tricks farmers into believing he can end a drought in “Rainmaker” — and he perfectly dressed his message in a melody made for a stadium singalong. Springsteen has said he wrote the song before Trump took office, but the fact that it’s coming out now speaks volumes. And then there’s a reference to “the criminal clown has stolen the throne [who] steals what he can never own” in “House of a Thousand Guitars” that is clearly aimed at the criminal clown currently occupying the Oval Office. These are songs that demand real-world action; perhaps Springsteen doesn’t believe he can leave everything up to the power of prayer.
Still, Letter to You is, for the most part, a surprisingly personal statement, since it’s unusual to hear one of rock’s most self-actualized voices take stock of what matters to him — his life, family, art, politics, past, and religion — all in real time. But Springsteen sounds at peace. Although the LP doesn’t sport the same youthful urgency as the recordings he cut in the Seventies and Eighties — there’s no “Badlands” or “Cover Me” here — you can hear how the anger and depression of his tougher times and his many split personalities delivered him to stability, and the most fascinating parts of Letter to You are when he comes out of the shadows to admit that he realizes it, too. So much of his music has been about learning to live with the setbacks his characters cannot change; this is the sound of Springsteen accepting that for himself.