On display in our living room is the cover of The River, the black & white 1980 Bruce Springsteen complete with flannel shirt & expressionless face ( like the Mona Lisa, is he smiling, snarling or what?). An appropriate shot as back then Bruce was a shadowy figure in NZ, he didn’t do interviews, videos or television, waged a war with bootleggers, and he didn’t chart (it took the throwaway "Hungry Heart" to start his singles chart progress) .At the time, all I could latch on to was that image from The River and, soon after, a suburban theatre rerun of the 1979 film “No Nukes” “which gave a glimpse of Bruce the James Brown type showman and E Street bandleader rather than the serious artist.
Yes, I'm a long-time fan from hearing the classic 1980 double album onwards this culminating in me acquiring not just a Fender Telecaster but a Fender Twin reverb amp just like Bruce a few years later. He has been an influence ever since, even Spotify tells me he is my most played artist over the decade (thanks Spotify that's really helpful!). My favourite anecdote is when Bruce accepted my sign request at the 2017 ChCh show and played the rare “Jole Blon”
(check out the recorded duet from 1981 with Gary US Bonds here).
Well the album cover approach may not have changed in 2020 (there he is again by himself and expressionless) but in every other album release aspect the contrast couldn't be more striking. Bruce is everywhere at the moment , on every late night US television show, mainstream media interview and podcast . He even turned up on Radio NZ for all of 15 mins. The messaging is consistent, these songs came quickly after a period of writers block, no demos done, just convene the E Street band in his Colts Neck New Jersey home studio , hit record (with a film crew in attendance of course to record the process of recording) and see how it goes. Which it turns out, very well as after four days, a definition of done was achieved. Of course, all on the back of a long reflection and reassessment phase starting with his autobiography Born to Run (complete with the most use of CAPITAL letters I have ever come across) , The River rerelease and tour (all concerts now recorded and available afterwards for purchasing) , the Broadway show (filmed) and an album release and accompanying film last year Western Stars . It’s a Bruce BARRAGE.
As for the new album, the theme continues his reflections on his career to date, looking back but this time with mortality and the grim reaper close by, prompted by the death of one of his original bandmates from the Castilles in the late 60’s. Bruce is celebrating the joy of living and being able to make music with his E Street mates "I'm alive I can feel the blood shiver in my veins!" he screams in the Tom Petty “Free Falling” meets Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied “ mash up called “Ghosts” featured later in the album.
The scene is set early with “One Minute You’re Here” . Expecting the E Street to come crashing in at maximum noise, it’s instead a great meditative acoustic guitar opener with the synth "dark clouds" sound which he has used to great effect on occasion throughout the last quarter century ( I referenced “Blood Brothers”, “Highway 29” and “Streets of Philadelphia” ,all from the mid 90's). From here it’s business as usual with the title track “Letter to You” , a trebly Telecaster riff which I have heard before too - this time on the “Lucky Town” song & album from ‘92. You may see where I am going here - Bruce is ticking all kinds of boxes (don’t worry.. the glockenspiel is here too folks!) as part of his MO over the years, certainly since Born to Run in ‘75 when both drummer Max Weinberg & pianist Roy Bittan came on board. It’s these two mainstays of the E street band who are all over this album. It is both one of the album's biggest strengths and ultimate disappointments . As the production apart from “One Minute You’re Here” is relentless with Bruce in full concert shredding vocal mode over an enormous E Street sound. “Burning Train” at track three is an example where it actually works, a huge 4 on the floor intro from Max Weinberg and accompanying massive guitar sound. It’s the sort of riff and vocal intent that U2 has built a stadium career out of. The E street Band post reunion '99 has always been top heavy with guitars creating at times a guitar "wall" of sound. If you didn’t know any better you wouldn’t think the great virtuoso Nils Lofgren is even on this. I think back to his one big contribution to a Springsteen album since he came onboard in the mid 80's and that is the astonishing solo on the Tunnel of Love title track , which still provides a great splash of colour upon hearing it. Bruce isn’t the boss for nothing, hence any guitar leads you will hear will be his, but they always tend to become a bit one dimensional.
Much has been made of the decision to record live , in a way not done since The River but it’s as if it is not known what to leave out in terms of production. Bruce has no choice but to assume his concert stadium roar. I find myself thinking back to the great arrangements on the epic River album - some piano , guitar, organ or even sax lead but all with Bruce varying his voice as the narrator and the character he’s inhibiting. Speaking of saxophone, the ghost of Clarence Clemons appears as a bit part only in the form of his nephew Jake in what seems like afterthought overdubs (N.B I haven’t seen the making of film yet as I am a bit Bruced out from sitting through the album and listening to other media, so I’m not sure how much of a presence Jake was on the sessions ). There are a central core of songs “Last Man Standing”, “Power of Prayer” and “House of A Thousand Guitars” which even after repeated listening’s sound very similar to each other. You know how much time, effort and expense is usually put into sequencing a Springsteen record (years even !) so this is all a bit surprising.
As for the rest of the songs of special interest amongst the Bruce freaks, there are three songs that have been residing in the archives, two of which predate E Street. It's nice that they feature here as it proves to be a point of difference to the main material, however Springsteen again has a tendency to pummel these into oblivion. Both “If I was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” find Bruce in full lyric spitting & riffing mode as he was prone to do early on. It is extremely close to Dylan of the mid 60's but with phrasing like Van Morrison (someone who Bruce really should give further credit to as an influence) and the E Street band hitting them like a proverbial ton of bricks. There is a great stripped back, solo version of Orphans from his 2005 Devils & Dust tour which is fantastic this is Bruce at his best IMHO.
I was familiar with the great Warren Zevon's “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” and the story that he stole the title from Bruce, however I wasn’t aware of any of the bootleg demo recordings from the 70’s by Bruce himself. The arrangement seems to line up with the 1979 rehearsal version, and I much prefer the feel of this than the 2020 version.
Lyrically, Bruce is again box ticking with references to the “evening sky”, “edge of town” “marked by Cain” , “out of school and out of work.” In terms of the mortality theme, I have a view that Dylan (the song "Not Dark Yet") and Paul Simon have done this better, but the standard is extremely high with David Bowie of course (Blackstar) which was recorded when he was actually dying.
I may be overly harsh with my view about Letter to You, and it seems most of the population inhabiting Planet Bruce are going ballistic about it , however overall I find it mediocre despite the intensity clearly being given by all participants. He has done some great themed albums before – Nebraska (the heartland tales album).....
, Tunnel of Love (the marriage breakdown album)....
to a lesser extent The Rising (Sep 11 or 911), and The Ghost of Tom Joad (migrant tales) At 58 mins, the album is too long. It drifts back to the age of CD where albums were packed with filler. In the fly on the wall documentary film “Blood Brothers'' from the mid 90’s, Springsteen’s long-time manager Jon Landau says how the production approach of Team Bruce dislikes anything generic, yet it seems this approach hasn’t been followed this time. In the meantime I’m off to find The River on Spotify.. #lettertoyou #nebraska #theriver #tunneloflove