In the summer of the plague year, my other half and I moved from San Mateo, California, where we had lived for 33 years, to Seattle, Washington, to be in the same city as our only child. We loved the Bay Area. We had friends there, family, purpose. But the pandemic came and with it, the clear, overriding imperative to reunite our family and weather this together. We sold the house that we had lived in for 17 years and embarked on a surreal 13-hour road trip on eerily empty highways. Every gas station rest stop felt like coronavirus Russian Roulette. The anxiety of feeling COVID lurking all around us was so overwhelming that I think I was in a trance for most of the drive.
And now we’re in Seattle in a rented house where I feel like a guest, where I miss the Bay Area’s singular quality of light. “I left my heart in San Francisco” is not just a line from a song. The positive: our family is intact. But I feel neither here nor there. Sometimes, the body memory of living in the same place for 33 years is overpowering; I swear I could walk outside and smell the roses in my old backyard, or drive over to the grocery store where all the clerks knew us. I think too much about all the things we used to do in the Bay Area, and how, when we did them for the last time, pre-COVID, we didn’t know it was the last time. The last Giants game. The last walk by the ocean in Half Moon Bay. The last Saturday night on Clement Street for books at Green Apple and dessert at Toy Boat. I feel like a spirit trapped between worlds who can’t move on. I’m trying to love Seattle, but the better part of me is still in San Mateo.
II. Somewhere high and hard and loud
My story is far from unique and far from awful. Normal life stopped for everyone in March 2020. This disease has been catastrophic for millions of others. I’m just offering my story, for what it’s worth, to explain why Bruce Springsteen’s new album “Letter to You” hits me the way it does.
The leadoff track, “One Minute You’re Here,” is an unexpected opener to Springsteen’s first studio album with the E Street Band in six years. It’s a short, quiet song — a prelude, really — that begins on an image of a “big black train coming down the track.” The train is one of Springsteen’s favorite metaphors; on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the train carrying saints and sinners, losers and winners did triple duty representing the E Street Band, rock and roll and America. On “One Minute You’re Here,” that locomotive is both a rush of memory and life itself speeding toward its final destination.
The song’s production is airy and clean, no extraneous frills. Springsteen’s voice is front and center, big, clear and more intimate-sounding than it has been on a studio album in years. The song is a meditation on mortality conveyed through a succession of reveries — boyhood at the end of summer, young love in autumn, an ominously starless sky “black as stone.” All of it is suffused by the sense of imminent endings, impermanence, the fragility of existence. “Baby, baby, baby, I’m so alone” goes the bridge, and, in the end, aren’t we all?
“One Minute” was written before COVID came. But like the rest of “Letter to You” (the album was recorded in five days in late 2019), it lands as a song for these lonesome and death-shadowed times. We’re all alone with our thoughts too much these days, and so, when I first heard “One Minute,” I connected it to my own particular existential circumstance of living here while longing for there. The way Springsteen’s mind jumps from memory to memory, I’m convinced the title phrase means, “One minute you’re here, fully present; the next minute, you’re gone to some other place and time in your mind.”
And that reading of the title, or misreading, cracked the rest of “Letter to You” wide open for me. This is another summational project from Springsteen, but unlike his Broadway show and his last solo album, “Western Stars,” he brings the E Street Band along on his deep dive into memory, revisiting his life in rock and roll, the choices made and the losses incurred along the way. Two exquisite guitar rockers, “Last Man Standing” and “Ghosts,” pay tribute to bandmates long gone from this world and convey the unbridled communal joy of playing music together. Three songs — “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” — were written and discarded by Springsteen in the ’70’s.
The journey through the past is not chronological (sometimes it isn’t even logical), but “Letter to You” is a thematically cohesive record. It’s also a stunningly generous one, Springsteen’s generosity extending not just to the E Street Band, who are in their element playing live on the record, but also to his younger self. All of Springsteen’s recent soul-searching has come to fruition. It takes an artist who knows who he is to be able to make a record like “Letter to You,” an artist unafraid to revisit and honor the headspace he was in when he made the music of his earlier days.
This is not a nostalgia piece. Springsteen at 71 isn’t trying to be Springsteen at 21 or 31. On “Letter to You,” Springsteen brilliantly demonstrates, and embraces, the idea that we contain ourselves at all of the ages we ever were, right now. The record is a celebration of life in full and oh how we need it in one of the darkest years humanity has ever known. Resurgent and sure-footed, “Letter to You” is Springsteen’s late-middle (early-late?) period masterpiece.
“One Minute You’re Here” is like a slow dissolve in a movie signaling a flashback. And then, on the second song (the title track), the E Street Band kicks in and hearing them feels like home. Springsteen and the ESB haven’t played live together in what seems like ages, and hasn’t cut an album live in studio like this (some songs were done in one or two takes) in longer than that. Springsteen and co-producer Ron Aniello refrain from the layers of strings and samples they’ve used on previous albums. Songs like the thundering, joyful “Ghosts” (the moment when the whole band shouts “By the end of the set we leave no one alive!” slays me) is as close to the stop-on-a-dime sharpness of the ESB live as has ever been captured on a studio release (you’d have to go back to parts of “The River” to match it). The band sounds big as life and blazing with purpose.
The clarity and intimacy of the sound is the reason a song like “Letter to You” can transcend corniness and deliver straightforward humility. The “You” of the title is us, Springsteen’s audience: “The things I found out through hard times and good/ I wrote ’em all down in ink and blood/ Dug deep in my soul and signed my name True/ and sent it in my letter to you.” Fans have always felt Springsteen speaks for and to them; this song makes it clear that Springsteen values our part in the conversation. (Springsteen’s extraordinarily personal pandemic DJ show on Sirius radio “From My Home to Yours” sound like an outgrowth of “Letter to You”.)
It’s probably the pandemic isolation talking, but, to me, this album feels like the barrier between artist and audience, and between listeners, is gone. It feels like we’ve all materialized “somewhere high and hard and loud” (as the chorus of “Last Man Standing” goes) to meet at a justifying, death-defying E Street Band show — to be sanctified, as Reverend Springsteen says, in a rock and roll baptism.
Just don’t think about whether live music will ever happen again and you’ll be fine.
III. Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd
The loss of live music makes the centerpiece of the record, “House of a Thousand Guitars,” almost unbearably poignant. Again, this song pre-dates the pandemic, but it’s eerily on-point for a time in which we can only burrow into memories of finding our tribe at a live show and feeling the music together: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/ We’ll go where the music never ends/ From the stadiums to the small town bars/ We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.” The song’s nimble, repeating piano riff and the line “bells ring out through churches and jails” echo “Jungleland.” But the exhilarating battles of youth that Springsteen chronicled 45 years ago on that epic have given way to the grinding reality that there are evils in this world that can’t be vanquished by guitars flashed like switchblades. The song ends with the guitars, drums and organ falling away, leaving the piano riff and Springsteen repeating “A thousand guitars, a thousand guitars” like a wobbly-voiced mantra. I promise, this song will destroy you, so plan accordingly.
“House of a Thousand Guitars” seems like it might have been specifically written about the healing power of live music as a refuge from the cruelty and chaos of Trump’s America: “The criminal clown has stolen the throne/ He steals what he can never own/ May the truth ring out from every small town bar/ And we’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.” On the album, “A Thousand Guitars” is followed by “Rainmaker,” twangy and booming and reminiscent of parts of the “Wrecking Ball” album. “Rainmaker” is about the con man hired to bring rain to parched fields, and about the darkness within people’s souls that drives them to fall for the con: “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad/ They’ll hire a rainmaker.” Springsteen spits his contempt for demagoguery like watermelon seeds through gritted teeth.
When I wrote about “Western Stars” last year, I expressed my disappointment that Springsteen had chosen an inward-looking work for his first album of the Trump Era and not the call to arms I wanted to hear. But I will concede that Springsteen’s lack of interest in putting out an overtly political album might be the right call. On “Letter to You,” the oblique yet effective barbs on “A Thousand Guitars” and “Rainmaker” suffice. Springsteen saves his ammunition for his radio show, where he speaks eloquently about the unspeakable atrocities of this moment. “Letter to You” is a stronger album for its restraint.
There are many treasures for fans to sift through here, the most delightful being the trio of songs Springsteen wrote as a young man, and how he approaches them now. For decades, “Janey Needs a Shooter” existed only as a song title that Springsteen gave to Warren Zevon; it appears on Zevon’s 1980 album “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School” as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter.” The two songs share only a chorus. Springsteen’s version tells a different story, about a man in love with a woman who gives (sells?) her body to other men. It’s a grown-up version of “Candy’s Room” (from “Darkness on the Edge of Town”), sung not in the cocksure voice of the kid who thinks he can save the girl, but the weathered one of the man who knows he can’t. Springsteen and the band return to the muscular grandeur of their “Darkness” sound on “Janey,” propelled by Max Weinberg’s thundering drums, Charles Giordano’s Danny Federici-like washes of organ and Springsteen’s raw, titanic wails of longing. (Listen to “Janey” back to back with “Something in the Night.”)
“Song for Orphans” is a never-recorded rarity from Springsteen’s early days, a song fans have been chasing forever. Unabashedly Dylanesque in its verbiage and structure (the verses call to mind “Chimes of Freedom” or “My Back Pages”), it would have been at home on “Greetings from Asbury Park”. I have no idea what all that stuff about the axis and the aurora and Big Mama are all about, but it sure is fun.
My notes made listening to “If I Was the Priest” consist entirely of this: “LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT.” “Priest” is another song that looms legendary in fan lore. Influenced by Dylan and The Band and reflecting the country blooze of Springsteen’s hippie band Steel Mill, “If I Was the Priest” is wholly of its time, with a vintage late-’60’s-early ’70’s fixation on outlaws, bootleggers and yonder mountains. Springsteen sings this song with a twinkle in his eye; he leans into his youthful choices with humor and grace, fully committing to the period piece by channelling his idol Dylan with a question mark uplift in his voice and singing lines like “If my lady was an heiress and my Mama was a thief” with relish. The band cooks on this song, with chunky organ and guitars, gospel piano, bluesy harmonica, and a smoldering guitar solo on the outro. And, oh man, the kettle drum roll that rises up out of the hollow just before Patti Scialfa swings in to lead the band’s makeshift choir as if she time-traveled to the studio from a 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour: LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT.
The final track, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” forms bookends with “One Minute You’re Here.” Although it shares thematic elements and part of a title with Roy Orbison’s matchlessly spooky “In Dreams,” it’s as reassuring as a lullaby. Springsteen has said the song is to be taken literally — he regularly dreams about Clarence Clemons, George Theiss of his teenage band the Castiles and other departed friends and family, “for death is not the end,” as the lyric goes. ( I can’t help wondering, though, if the verse “I got your guitar here by the bed/ All your records and all the books you read” could also be about reuniting with one’s younger self, becoming whole again, which would also be a fitting way to tie up this record.) The song canters along until the band drops out on the last line, leaving Springsteen alone, the last man standing. “I’ll see you in my dreams,” he sings, unaccompanied.
And what is there to do anymore but share his faith? We will meet again on the other side of this thing, my Bruce family. Until then, we’ll be together in dreams.
©Joyce Millman, 2020