Bruce Springsteen and his stalwart E Street Band were last seen together on a 2016 tour that included two four-hour dates at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia that were the longest marathons he’s ever played.
Since then, the now 71-year-old songwriter has been in contemplative, career-summation mode.
He published his “Born To Run” memoir and converted it into the solo acoustic theater piece “Springsteen on Broadway.” Last year, he released “Western Stars,” an underrated stylistic departure that dipped into early 1970s country-rock melancholy.
But the one thing Springsteen hadn’t given fans lately is what they treasure most: Songs recorded with the E Street Band that turn up the volume in pursuit of communal catharsis and show a little faith that, even this far along in a nearly 50-year journey, there is still magic in the night.
With “Letter to You” (Columbia *** 1/2), Springsteen once again gives his audience reason to believe, with a set of robust songs that showcase his lifelong fellow travelers in all their rugged glory. He’s back on E Street making bighearted music constructed to fill arenas and stadiums.
But the album, his first release of mostly new material with E Street in eight years, doesn’t go in for easy affirmation. Nearly all its songs are haunted by death as Springsteen mourns brothers in arms lost over the years, or revels in the worldly grace of a lover’s touch or the sound of a Ben E. King song on the radio. It chases down salvation but knows that time is short.
The title cut to “Letter to You,” which comes out Friday, rumbles with instant familiarity: Max Weinberg’s pounding drums, Roy Bittan’s piano embellishments, soaring saxophone from Jake Clemons, stepping into the role that his uncle Clarence played until his death in 2011.
“Ghosts,” the second single on the album — which was recorded live in Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey in less than a week last November — is even more emphatic in its swaggering celebration of joining comrades in the shared purpose of slaying an audience. “Count the band in and then kick into overdrive,” Springsteen sings. “By the end of the set we leave no one alive.”
But if those songs gave the impression that “Letter to You” might play out like a singular exercise in the kind of we’re-all-in-this-together uplift that fans have every reason to yearn for in 2020, well, the truth is a little more complicated than that.
“Letter to You” does deliver the forthright emotionalism you would expect from a Springsteen album that includes a song titled “Land of a Thousand Guitars.”
But the album — which includes three songs written in the 1970s — comes by its life-affirming urgency only after paying respects to those that have been lost, and facing the reality that the clock is ticking on Springsteen and his bandmates.
It begins by looking death in the eye on a song called “One Minute You’re Here” that doesn’t seem like it belongs on an E Street Band album at all.
Instead, it sounds like it wandered over from a Springsteen solo project like 2005’s “Devils & Dust,” with acoustic guitar and grizzled vocal over a somber synthesizer. It concerns existence itself. “One minute you’re here,” the Boss muses. “Next minute you’re gone.”
With that theme established, the track “Letter to You” comes thundering in, landing squarely on rock-solid, reassuring E Street ground. It’s about Springsteen’s lifelong compulsion to connect: “I took all the sunshine and rain, all my happiness and all my pain … And I sent it in a letter to you.”
The songwriting burst for the “Letter to You” album was inspired by the 2018 death of George Theiss, frontman for the Castiles, Springsteen’s first band, who played together from 1965 to 1968.
Along with the absence of both Clarence Clemons and original E Street keyboardist Danny Federici (who died in 2008), Theiss’ death haunts “Letter to You.”
His presence is felt in “Ghosts” and also “Last Man Standing,” which Springsteen wrote after realizing he was the only Castile still alive.
GOOSE BUMPS FROM THE GARDEN STATE
Confronting mortality brings him back to his Jersey beginnings in “Last Man,” “Letter’s” most goose-bump-inducing track: “Knights of Columbus and the Fireman’s Ball, Friday night at the Union Hall/ The black leather clubs all along Route 9/ You count the missing as you count off time.”
“These songs reminded me of a debt that I still owed to my Freehold brothers in arms,” he says in “Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You,” the Thom Zimny-directed black-and-white documentary that premieres on Apple TV+ the same day the album is released.
The documentary captures the E Streeters in the studio, with babushka-wearing guitarist Steve Van Zandt sounding like Art Carney on “The Honeymooners” as he barks out song arrangement ideas and with Springsteen teaching his cousin how to play “Baby I,” the first song he wrote with Theiss in the Castiles.
And in a heartening moment for those hoping that singer and band will stick together ’till death do us part, Springsteen at one point proclaims: “We’re taking this thing till we’re all in a box.”
Going back to his beginnings also led Springsteen to revisit unreleased material.
One of those songs, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” was originally written for “Darkness On the Edge of Town” in 1978, and later adapted by Warren Zevon. It’s a powerful, brooding rocker that plays to the band’s strengths, then and now.
But the real revelations are “If I Was the Priest” and “Songs for Orphans,” two songs recorded as verbose, strummy demos when Springsteen was in his “New Dylan” phase before his 1973 “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” debut.
“Priest” and “Orphans” inject Letter with wildcat energy. For all the fullness of the E Street wall of sound on the newly written songs, they tend to settle into similar, not-too-fast tempos, and get sluggish at times.
“Priest” and “Orphans” quicken the pulse, and show Springsteen exploring themes that continued to concern him his entire career: the search for faith and value of community. He’s talking back and forth to himself across generations, with florid cascades of language that contrast with his current, terse style. Plus, down to their harmonica codas, they sound like really good Dylan songs.
“Letter to You” largely avoids topicality. A full set of anti-Donald Trump anthems “would be the most boring album in the world,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone.
Still, “Rainmaker,” whose composition predates Trump’s presidency, is clearly included to speak to the moment: “Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white, says night’s day and day’s night,” he sings as the band slams in hard. “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad … they’ll hire a rainmaker.”
(Springsteen has made his preference in this year’s presidential race known by allowing use of his music in political advertising: The Lincoln Project of anti-Trump Republicans recently debuted an attack ad using “Streets of Philadelphia.”)
“Letter to You’s” songs are meant to be performed live, carrying with them the souls of the departed while celebrating camaraderie in the here and now. “Your spirit filled with light, I need you by my side,” the band exults together on “Ghosts.” “Your love and I’m alive.”
There’s a heartrending moment in the “Letter to You” film where the old friends — not knowing COVID-19 would shut their 2020 down — raise a toast to the road, looking forward to once again communing with fans all over the world.
Now, who knows when that can happen again. Until then, “Letter to You’s” songs of community and faith will have to sustain us on their own.
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer