After his legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons died in 2011, Bruce Springsteen invited Clemons’s nephew, Jake, to audition for the band. Jake arrived an hour late then said he only “sort of” knew the five songs he’d been asked to learn. “Lesson number one,” The Boss explained “In the E Street band we don’t ‘sort of’ do… ANYTHING. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK’N’ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your S*** DOWN COLD.”
Reflecting on the incident in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, the often humble Springsteen jokes that he doesn’t usually refer to himself in the third person and admits he laid it on a bit thick. But only a bit. Because, to him, the E Street Band is a “sacred brotherhood” and “your degree of emotional understanding of the stakes we’re playing for F***ing MATTERS!”
Anyone who’s seen the world’s best bar band live will have felt the exhilarating truth of this statement. Exhibit B turns out to be Springsteen’s heart-hammering 20th album, Letter to You. For, although the E Streeters have been playing together since 1972, this is the first time they’ve recorded an album, live, in the same room. At the request of guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, there were no demos. Springsteen just played the band the songs and then let them rip. While their early recording sessions took agonising months, they’ve now got their s*** down so cold that they tore through the recording in just four days. They had the studio booked for five days, so Van Zandt says they spent the fifth day listening to it with their boots and speakers up.
Things start out with Springsteen in intimate, solo acoustic mood on the beautiful "One Minute You’re Here". You can wrap yourself in the weathered warmth of his voice like an old leather jacket. It’s scuffed, tough and soft: equal parts blue-collar Jersey boy and stadium-filling rock star. The lyrical theme - which runs through the entire record - is mortality. “Big black train comin’ down the track/ I lay my penny down on the rail/ As the summer sings it’s last song/ One minute you’re here/ Next minute you’re gone…” Springsteen turned 71 this year. He’s lost two members of the E Street Band (Clemons and organist Dan Federici) and in 2018 became the only surviving member of his first band, The Castiles. But as the opening song goes on, the singer who cries that he’s “so alone” is gently joined by a piano, muffled drum and synth. When the tambourine falls into step you hear the band beginning to face their fears and embracing the moment together.
The track functions like the “prayer” they often join hands to say before shows. Once it’s done, they’re roaring off into the unabashed American rock’n’roll of the title track, on which Springsteen describes the sweat and tears he puts into his songwriting: “Got down on my knees/ Grabbed my pen and bowed my head/ Tried to summon all that my heart finds true/ And send it in my letter to you.”
Although I grew up loving the lo-fi Springsteen of albums like Nebraska (1982) and later becoming obsessed with his hypnotic soundtrack to the film Philadelphia (1992) and The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), it took me a long time to “get” the big, bombastic band sound. The fist-pumping of Born in the USA struck me as cheesily macho in its era. But I missed the point. It took me way too long to realise you just need to turn it up really loud on a long, fast drive through a heartbroken summer night to hear Springsteen for the damaged hero he is. But that ensemble euphoria does work best live, when the bass is rattling through the blood and bones of hundreds of collected humans. The live recording of this record really helps deliver that communal feeling. They feel so present and close that listeners might feel they’re violating the pandemic rules.
They rollick through the “Janey Needs a Shooter” and the Dylanesque “Song for Orphans”, both of which Springsteen wrote back in 1973. But it’s the new material that really catches fire. The band blaze through “Ghosts” and “Last Man Standing”, with “House of a Thousand Guitars” soaring above the lot. Driven by the supple rise and fall of a hymnal piano melody, the song is a commentary on songwriting. Springsteen, who’s been wonderfully frank about his lifelong struggle with depression, expresses solidarity with other writers “bitter and bored” who “wake in search of the lost chord”. As the champion of the working Americans who’ve been sold out by the Trump presidency, he delivers a verse on “the criminal clown” who has “stolen the throne”. But he offers the communion of music as a way to rise above and beyond material misery. “Brother and sister wherever you are,” he sings, in a way that makes you feel his hand clapped to your shoulder. “We’ll rise together till we find the spark/ 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…”
Springsteen intended to tour right after this album was released. The plug has obviously been pulled on those plans now. But for those missing the electricity of live music, the seasoned connectivity Letter to You delivers something very close. And yes, Jake Clemons is playing on there, too, having earned the keys to the Citadel of Rock’n’Roll. His raucous riffs are raised on the shoulders of a bunch of septuagenarians more determined than ever to prove that there’s no “sort of” about ANYTHING they do. Encore!