This article was originally published in The Sting on October 30, 2020.
Whenever I travel, I always like to have either new music or something old I haven’t heard before to accompany me. Last Friday was just such an occasion. Perhaps what was more fitting, was as I made my way to see family in Asbury Park, NJ, I had the chance to listen to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s new record, Letter to You.
Recorded over the course of five days at Springsteen’s New Jersey farm, Letter to You tells Springsteen’s story. His beginnings in Freehold. His first band. The people he’s loved and lost along the way. There are few records that make me cry. This was one of them.
“Big black train comin’ down the track/ blow your whistle long and long. One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.” A poignant reminder of the fragility of life, Springsteen evokes a sound reminiscent of his Nebraska LP on the album opener, “One Minute You’re Here.” The second track, “Letter to You” brings the E Street Band back in full form for the first time in six years.
Every track thereafter is classic Springsteen.
In “Last Man Standing,” Springsteen tells how he is the only surviving member of his original band, The Castiles, a rockabilly group that frequented a number of bars and clubs around New Jersey. In a similar vein, the album closer “I’ll See You In My Dreams” hits close to anyone who’s lost people close to them. While some may have faith that they will be reunited with loved ones in an afterlife, the only way we can see those loved ones now is when we dream.
“Song for Orphans” perfectly encapsulates some of the problems facing America in 2020. Speaking of “restless loud white boys” and “the axis,” Springsteen tells us of some of the atrocities he’s seen in his days. The chorus is a triumphant mnemonic that the Confederacy or Axis powers will never win, that they aren’t as strong as the forces of good and the forces of true freedom and equality for all. It’s beautiful songwriting that couldn’t be more relevant in today’s climate.
I’ve saved my favorite song for last.
Springsteen wrote “If I Was the Priest” as a demo sometime in 1970 or ‘71 for his first LP, but ultimately never released it. Instead, Allan Clarke of The Hollies recorded and released his own version in 1972. The lyrical work takes us back to the early days of Springsteen, where his words and phrasing seemed faster than light at times, and otherwise downright kismet. Perhaps the biggest difference between Springsteen then and Springsteen now is he puts just a little more space in between words.
On this song, you can tell Springsteen and the band are just having fun. After all, until this year the only versions available were Bruce’s early demo recording and Clarke’s more polished recording. It’s the timeless tale of outlaws, but told with biblical figures as the key players. Jesus is a sheriff. The Virgin Mary is a saloon keeper. The Holy Ghost runs a burlesque show. After all, who else on this planet could come up with something like that? I’ve been finding myself going back to that song all week.
In addition to the album, Springsteen also released a film chronicling the recording of the album with some stories behind the tracks. Available on Apple TV+, I’d highly recommend the film as a supplement to the LP. In the film, we get to see the E Street Band in their element. Bruce memorializes E Streeter’s they’ve lost: Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. He gives us a better idea of where he’s coming from with the new material. We also get to meet Springsteen’s cousin Frank who taught him his first guitar chords. At the tail end of the film (post-credits) Bruce and Frank jam out to the first song they ever wrote together.
This album is special. I don’t think there’s an album in recent memory as good as this one. To me, it competes with Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Nebraska as my favorite Springsteen record. Perhaps what made it better was driving through Springsteen’s old stomping grounds while I listened to it. While there is so much to be unnerved about in 2020, Bruce Springsteen makes you feel human again, even if for a short period of time.
Tony Sheaffer is managing editor for The Sting and writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.