On the day I received my pre-order deluxe edition of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Letter To You, I posted some “now playing” pix of it on social media to kind of pre-tease the notion that I was on this and working on a review (in addition to just being a fanboy!). But, chalk it up to the times, within two minutes, two different people in two different Facebook groups trolled me with snarky comments. I took a deep breath and responded kindly but tersely.
Which leads me to my opening summary for this review: Letter To You is not “just another Springsteen album” (as one person had said…)
Here is why:
First, lets acknowledge the contribution of The E-Street Band, a group of musicians with a distinctive feel for Bruce’s music that can only come from touring the world together for decades. Conceptually, Letter To You feels like a natural step forward after the glory of his brilliant Western Stars solo album last year (click here for my review).
Not so much a “return to form” (I hate that cliche anyhow), I view Letter To You as more of an affirmation of the healing power of pure rock and roll to connect with many people’s inner spirits.
Even though they are very different records, there is still a lot of that cinemascopic vibe Bruce was mining on Western Stars. And clearly he is on a great roll songwriting wise from the get go on “One Minute You’re Here” and the title track.
Letter To You also touches on many phases of Bruce’s career. Most notably, there are several songs from the early 70s which have finally been given their chance in the spotlight. These songs never really made it beyond that early acoustic period around the first album and some demos.
So it is arevelation to hear “Janey Needs Shooter,” “If I Was A Priest” and — perhaps my favorite track on the album — “Song For Orphans,” all being given the full-blown E-Street Band treatment.
Honestly, listening to it right now as I’m writing this, shudders are running up and down my spine as if I’m hearing some lost Bruce outtake from 1973 that I’ve never heard before. Yet, it sounds like the current band in 2020.
And, it sounds beautiful. Obviously this song has been on Bruce’s mind a bit as he had played it in 2005 (click here for that acoustic performance, apparently his first time since the early 70s, such as on his first radio broadcast, click here). It is fascinating hearing it in full flower after so long just knowing these skeletal acoustic guitar and vocal versions.
The amazing thing is the new version feels like no less than a classic tribute to Bob Dylan & The Band, The E-Street Band delivering the song with the authority of “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released.”
So… yeah… Bruce’s Letter To You is not “just another Springsteen album.”
One of the other great things about Letter To You: like Western Stars, this album was recorded and mastered quite nicely so it sounds good even when you turn it up loud. I don’t know if it was done in analog or digital but someone was paying attention to those little details which matter to listeners.
Audiophiles should be happy about this. There has been grumbling among some fans (myself included) about the hard digital flavor of many of Bruce’s more recent albums during the 00s. Magic in particular is riddled by especially harsh mastering (or a production flaw) that makes it almost unlistenable at anything but a low volume. Wrecking Ball and High Hopes aren’t exactly rich listening experiences either (that is not to say the songs aren’t good, I’m just talking about the general fidelity of it all and the sonic approach to how those albums were put together).
Listen for Max Weinberg’s power opener tom-tom riff on “Ghosts” for a quick example of how nicely Letter To You was recorded.
I bought the special edition of Letter To You on spiffy semi-translucent, dark-grey-smoke-with-white vinyl and am very happy. The three-sided album is well centered and the LP plays quietly. This is a modern sounding rock album — yet, simultaneously there is a classic feeling here in how it was EQ’d and mastered. It is thus not a harsh listen — crisp when it needs to be yet warm when the power to reach into your heart and soul is necessary
Letter To You sounds like a classic Springsteen album, with the raw energy that made Darkness On The Edge Of Town so immediate, yet with the perspective of 50 years of writing, performing and touring under his — and the E-Street Band’s — belt.
Letter To You feels like a love note from Bruce to us all. That comes across in his stories and also in the passionate promotions he’s issued around the time of this release (cleverly timed right before election day). In many ways, Letter To You is an early valentine to America.
And it is not “just another Springsteen album.”