At this point, you don’t get a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band project without questions about it being the last one. That’s actually been the case for years: when Springsteen and company closed out their 1999-2000 reunion tour at Madison Square Garden with a special extended version of “Blood Brothers,” it felt remarkably final. Nine years later, when The Boss concluded the Working on a Dream tour with a full-circle performance of his debut album, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, a common topic of conversation in the Springsteen fan community was about whether we’d ever get another E Street tour. The band came back in 2012—sans late sideman Clarence Clemons—for a tour supporting Springsteen’s then-new LP Wrecking Ball, and came back again in 2016 to play 1980’s double-LP masterpiece The River in full night after night. At the end of each tour, the question resurfaced: was this the last dance? The ensuing years only gave credence to the idea that it might be, as Springsteen penned his memoir, spent more than year on Broadway, and circled back to old songs for last year’s solo Western Stars. Each of these projects was wrought with ruminations about fading youth, aging, and mortality. Bruce wrote and spoke extensively about Clemons, whose death in 2011 clearly shook him to the core. On Stars, he closed the album with “Moonlight Motel,” his most aching look back at the past, and at the little glories of youthful freedom and young love that can’t quite ever be replicated or recaptured.
As more and more evidence built up, it started getting hard to doubt what Bruce was doing. Years of looking back, of telling his story in his words, of organizing his legacy neatly, of coming to terms with aging and seeing his friends and bandmates leave this earth: all these things made it feel like The Boss was getting ready for his curtain call. Whether there would ever be another E Street project was the secondary question to whether Springsteen himself was ready to hang up his guitar and drive off into the sunset, like a kid pulling out of a town full of losers with his mind set on winning.
Letter to You, album number 20 in the Springsteen oeuvre, is both a rebuttal to these assumptions and a confirmation of them. On the one hand, it’s an album deeply preoccupied with the way things used to be. On the other hand, it’s a genuine E Street Band album—the first proper one since Working on a Dream and the first one to really sound like the E Street Band since the 1980s. Over the past three decades, Bruce’s biggest sin as an artist has been underusing his band. He became something like the neighbor who owns the most beautiful sports car in the world but never, ever drives it. Bruce had, pound for pound, the greatest-ever American rock band at his back and he gave them pink slips to chase other dreams. He kept them on the bench for almost the entirety of the ‘90s, then spent the 2000s and early 2010s making records that, while often wonderful, were recorded and produced in a way that didn’t play to the band’s strengths. Letter to You, recorded live in the studio over the course of four days and flush with musical arrangements that show off what makes the E Street Band such a thrilling live act, feels like a miracle just for sounding the way Bruce Springsteen records used to sound.
Letter to You is far more than nostalgia, though. It’s one thing to write new songs that sound like old songs. Bruce played that game himself on 2007’s Magic, a joyfully wistful album that splits the difference between the classic Springsteen sound and modern studio polish; Rolling Stone called it “the most openly nostalgic record Springsteen has ever made.” Letter to You is wistful, but in a different way. Magic was a tip of the hat to the past. This album attempts to turn back the clock to the way-back-when, even as its creator reckons with the dwindling sand left in the hourglass.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about brevity: about how time can feel long when you’re in it, but can look like it elapsed in the blink of an eye when you look back; about how, too often, you take for granted the things that are there in your life until they aren’t anymore; about the tendency we all have to look back at golden memories and hope for similar good times in the future, only for those “next times” and “somedays” to turn into little impossibilities, floating off on the winds of time. Earlier this month, my grandma passed away, almost exactly six years to the day since we lost my grandfather. Losing her caused me to reflect on some of my favorite times that we spent together. In particular, I thought of a family reunion some 15 years ago, and of sitting on a porch on a flawless summer evening, my entire family—my parents, my siblings, all my cousins, all my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents—within a 20-foot radius of me. We were doing what we always do in the evenings when we get together: singing old songs while my Uncle Billy played guitar, the adults drinking wine or beer, all of us reveling in being together and sharing something idyllic. I remember thinking at the time that it was a perfect moment, and I’ve looked back frequently often over the years and yearned to go back to it. I always told myself we’d have another vacation like that: another golden summer; another week of no responsibility; another perfect night under the stars, singing along to songs we all loved. But time wore on; my cousins and I grew up and fell into busy lives that left less time for weeklong getaways; the family gatherings got further apart, and briefer when they did happen. Now that my grandparents are gone, I have to come to terms with the fact that there will never again be a moment in my life quite like that perfect memory from 15 summers ago, because my family will never be “all” together again—not quite.
What makes Letter to You miraculous is that it looks back at those memories of long ago and somehow finds a way to actualize them again—to go back to the blueprint of what made the good ol’ days so damn good and to find a way to resurrect it, if only just for the few minutes that a song lasts. That’s most clear on “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was a Priest,” and “Song for Orphans,” three very old songs revisited here nearly 50 years after they were written. All three songs were penned before Greetings from Asbury Park came out. “Priest” was even one of the dozen or so songs that Springsteen performed in his audition for Columbia Records in 1972. The songs sound old too, recapturing the wordy street-rat charm that defined Bruce’s first two albums, before a screen door slammed in 1975 and changed everything. Somehow, even the band ends up in the time machine, with especially Max Weinberg’s pounding drums and Roy Bittan’s twinkling pianos recalling what defined “E Street” back in the 1970s. The only giveaway that the songs were recorded in 2020 and not 1978 is Springsteen’s voice—wearier and more weatherworn today than it was then, but still somehow imbuing the songs with the same youthful hope that they were built to carry. It’s difficult to put into words how joyful it is to hear these songs now, other than to say that it feels a bit like closing your eyes, picking a favorite memory that you thought was lost to time, and suddenly getting to relive it as your older, wiser self. For a guy who spent an entire run on Broadway talking about his “magic trick,” perhaps the most surprising thing about Letter to You is that, with these three new-old classics, Bruce adds a new element to his illusion.
And it is an illusion; of course it is. As much as some of this album might sound like a time warp, other parts repeatedly wake you up to the fact that it’s 2020 and not 1973. That’s not Clarence Clemons playing the saxophone, for example, or Danny Federici playing the organ. When the E Street Band toured in 2012, in the wake of Clarence’s death, Bruce repeatedly asked “Are we missing anybody?” We’re still missing a few on this record, even though the sheer sound of it makes it feel like their ghosts are playing in the room again. The newer songs here are also very much about the stark reality of 2020, one where our Boss has to grapple repeatedly with loss and the idea of his own impermanence. On “One Minute You’re Here,” the haunting acoustic opener, he conjures up images of fleeting things—trains roaring through town, summers, a happy memory shared with a loved one at an autumn carnival—in service of the title refrain: “One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” On “Last Man Standing,” he muses about being the only person left alive from his first professional band, The Castiles. On “House of a Thousand Guitars,” he envisions heaven as something akin to the small-town bars he and the band used to play on the Jersey shore, way before “Bruce Springsteen” was a household name. On “Ghosts,” he lets his audience in on what’s likely become a ritual every time he performs: connecting with his fallen musical brethren “on the other side.” And on “See You in My Dreams,” he intones that “death is not the end,” pledging to another lost companion, “I’ll see you in my dreams when all the summеrs have come to an end.”
Springsteen has sung about death before, but never this prevalently, and never this personally. The prospect of shuffling off this mortal coil feels uncomfortably close in most of these songs, to the point where I had to remind myself several times while listening that Bruce is only 71 and (hopefully!) still has many good years left in front of him. And to his credit, The Boss still does unleash a few moments here that hint at what the future might hold for him and the E Street Band. The first is “Burnin’ Train,” a blazing rock song that feels tailor-made to open shows on Springsteen’s next arena tour with the band, whenever the hell that is allowed to happen. The second is “Rainmaker,” the one political shot that Springsteen takes on this record—and one that he makes sure counts. It’s about desperate people and the huckster they count on to solve their problems. “Rainmaker, a little faith for hire/Rainmaker, the house is on fire/Rainmaker, take everything you have/Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad/They’ll hire a rainmaker.” Trump’s name never appears, nor does his description, but as in all of Springsteen’s best and most searing political work, the message is clear regardless: on November 3, let’s fire the rainmaker.