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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Letter To You is one of the finest achievements of Bruce Springsteen’s career

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen
Photo: Danny Clinch

Loss is on Bruce Springsteen’s mind. How could it not be—it’s on all of our minds these days, inescapably present and unfailingly haunting. It greets us each day as we stare down the mounting human cost of this global tragedy, and as we go to bed each night, taking what succor we can from the things and people that bring us comfort. But it’s especially insistent for those of us living in countries that have so spectacularly failed to protect their citizenry, where we continue to see the body count rise and loved ones fall ill. In this one way—this shared sense of communal pain—we are a collective, united in loss and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

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And if there’s an artist who has spent his life speaking to lost souls looking for that silver lining in a life of tragedy, it’s Bruce Springsteen. From early tales of young dreamers taking to the open road in search of something better; to mid-period explorations of adults grappling with relationships and dreams of the path not taken; to his latter-day ruminations on life, love, and all of the above, the musician has been striving to connect through stories of absence. Sure, he’s got the occasional love song, but what his music mostly provides is a much-needed stopgap in the cracks of our ongoing facade of a mental dam against the torrent of all that worries us. The Boss straps on his guitar to remind you it’s possible to get through the day, and maybe even end it with a smile on our face; sure, this life can be a shitshow, but we’re all in it together, so let’s find joy, peace, or even transcendence—a reason to believe—where we can. And by that measure—or nearly any other one—his new record Letter To You is an absolute triumph, one that can take its place alongside the best albums of Springsteen’s long career.

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Letter To You, Springsteen’s 20th studio album, returns time and again to the idea of loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of hope, or even just the temporary loss of someone you want by your side—it all comes to the forefront in a batch of songs that resonate lyrically and musically, whether through a hushed acoustic pleading, as on album opener “One Minute You’re Here,” or on the grandly epic, lighters-in-the-air bombast of stately seven-minute anthem “Janey Needs A Shooter.” Tying them together, as always, is a fervent belief in the power of music (and yes, a little bit of love) to uplift and provide some respite during these dark times, the kind of revival-tent rock sermonizing that infuses his live shows with hallelujah-level intensity and his albums with recherché energy. And Springsteen, having at long last learned to wield his throaty delivery in just about any way he desires, pairs these various longings and laments to straightforwardly assembled numbers that feel organic in both conception and execution, as though the E Street Band just spent the afternoon jamming out riffs until it found the ideal sound to match the meaning and mood.

What makes Letter To You great can be identified by holding up nearly any track as a microcosm of its overall scope. Take “Ghosts,” the third-to-last song on the album: Reworking the main riff from Tom Petty’s “Freefalling,” this barnburner of a number seems, at first glance, like it shouldn’t work. The structure is pure retro-’50s sock-hop rock and roll, a call and response between Bruce’s vocal lines and an outdated guitar riff—all the hallmarks of a past-its-prime tune. But Springsteen takes it and does what he’s done his entire career: adopt the sounds of rock ’n’ roll’s past, the rhythm-and-blues grooves and melodies of yesteryear, and infuse them with vital new passion and profundity, making what’s old feel new again. Even his increasingly sentimental lyrics feel universal here, rather than hokey. It’s a musical transfiguration that never stops being impressive, no matter how many times he’s pulled it off through the decades.

And that alchemy is what separates the great Springsteen albums from the just-okay ones. When he succeeds in channeling whatever muse is currently guiding his hand, the results are electric; when he doesn’t, you get Human Touch. But even after-the-comeback albums like The Rising inevitably have a couple of clunkers; this is the rare post-USA release to be all killer, no filler. A song like “Burnin’ Train” isn’t just invigorating—with Max Weinberg’s frenetic hi-hat rhythm driving along a pair of blistering guitar solos and Bruce’s vocals excellently harmonized with Patty Scialfa, it’s one of the most rocking tracks the band has laid down in 25 years.

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It certainly doesn’t hurt that, for the first time since 1984’s Born In The USA, Springsteen has finally returned to tracking an album live in the studio with the E Street Band. It sounds like it, too; there’s an immediacy to the music that comes across like nothing so much as a world-class band playing a last-call set at a local dive bar, a cohesiveness in tone and arrangements that exceeds even that of Magic, the high-water mark of Springsteen’s 21st-century output. And whereas last year’s thematic and sonically unified Western Stars disappeared so far into the past that Bruce himself got lost in it, here that clarity of vision lends fire to the Springsteen vibe, cementing his fixations on time gone by with an all-too-present look at here and now. It comes through clearest in numbers like “Last Man Standing,” which pulls at the mystique of life as a rock ’n’ roll true believer to expose the ways it can leave one isolated.

But maybe the best thing to happen to Letter To You is the unfussy production. Reportedly recorded over the course of only five days, it bears the hallmarks of a loose, easygoing affair. It’s a surprising counterpoint not only to the heaviness of all that grief and uncertainty, but also to his usual painstakingly overproduced sound, a rawer and rougher element in the engineering of the record that gives it that sweat-and-blood feel. (Admittedly, this is grading on quite a curve; no one’s going to be mistaking this for something Steve Albini recorded.) Despite the usual amounts of compression, the instrumentation here never feels like more than what it is: nine people in a room, giving it their all.

But above all, there’s the songs. The title track is classic Springsteen rock, an old-school rambling groove with a hopeful message about our best efforts being worth it, regardless of the result. “The Power Of Prayer” finds the Boss delivering a simple descending melody paired to a celebration of the most important things sometimes being right where you need them. “House Of A Thousand Guitars” stands out as a highlight, an exhortation to find support in each other through music—despite being written before the pandemic, as was the rest of the album, its clarion cry to bring people together promises eventual light at the end of the tunnel.

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Even the likely anti-Trump song “Rainmaker” avoids cheap indictments, instead dwelling on how life’s miseries unfortunately mean “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad / so bad, so bad.” (It’s definitely about Trump.) By the time “Song For Orphans” finds Springsteen in full-on Dylan mode (“The multitude assembled and tried to make the noise / The black blind poet generals and restless loud white boys”), the record has coalesced into a singular document of tension and release, nostalgia and regret, loss and salvation, these opposing pairs flip sides of the same coin of a life, if not always well-lived, then certainly defiantly lived. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have created a musical testament to survival—the toll it exacts, the struggle it requires, but also the beauty to be found in the very cracks that give shape to our damaged souls. It’s one for the ages, and apparently Springsteen is finally the perfect age to deliver it.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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