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"Letter To You" album review by Dan French

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THE GHOSTS OF TIMES PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

It’s important to remember that while many might believe ‘Letter To You’ is a ‘pandemic’ album, it actually predates Coronavirus-19, having been recorded live by Bruce and the E Street Band in just five days at home in New Jersey late in 2019. As with ‘Western Stars’, when we were actually hearing Bruce at 60, ten years before its release; here, Bruce had not long turned 70, and following the loss of his Castiles bandmate George Theiss last year, his thoughts were very much on mortality, and that’s spurred the urgency of his musical mission. Looking back as well as forward, an archives trawl for the work in progress known as ‘Tracks 2’ inspired Bruce to revisit and re-imagine three unreleased songs dating from 1972 to make this a genuinely career-spanning statement.

‘One Minute You’re Here’ opens, starting sparse and acoustic with echoing vocals, but it’s a deceptive beginning; the backing keyboards and gentle percussion build gradually to prepare for the fuller band effect that dominates most of the album. This and ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ form well-balanced bookends, if - as Max Weinberg recommended - you listen from start to finish. It provides an arc moving from a sense of loss to one of hope at the end; finding a reason to believe.

The initial impact of the title track has been the sound first and foremost - the lyrics are largely functional in comparison, and I'm guessing Bruce was mainly focusing on the chorus and title, that idea of communication. If I were to try and imagine his approach, I'd be thinking: we need two things at this point for the first album track released in 2020, after the experience that we’ve all had these days - firstly, a big, familiar, unashamedly E Street Band sound; and secondly, the reassuring message to listeners that he's been thinking of us all (although the idea goes beyond just us - the audience - to former bandmates, loved ones and others in his life). It's the musical equivalent of a big, warm hug from an old friend after a long and lonely interval; for me, it’s as if he knew that's what many of us have been missing most this year.

The three oldest songs fit seamlessly among the new material. ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’ is a major tour de force, painstakingly faithful – but far superior in sound quality - to the 1977 rehearsal version in circulation among fans (not to be confused with its sibling song, the very different ‘Jeannie Needs A Shooter’, best-known from Warren Zevon’s co-written version with Bruce). Both ‘If I Was The Priest’ (with its false ending and fabulous reprise) and ‘Song For Orphans’ are re-imagined very much as if the band were gloriously channelling Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ sessions, complete with swelling keyboards, harmonica and pedal steel. Bruce once described ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as a song that kicked open the door to your mind; here he’s delivering the mail straight through that open door, no letterbox required. In the early 70s he may have been too self-conscious of the ‘New Dylan’ tag to release these wordy songs, but later in life he’s clearly more relaxed about such comparisons, with nothing to prove nowadays.

‘Burnin’ Train’ is sonically frenetic, all chiming guitars and crashing drums, and lyrically a passionate appeal to a lover: ‘Take me and shake me from this mortal cage.’ ‘Last Man Standing’ and ‘The Power Of Prayer’ celebrate shared musical history and the strength of love; Jake particularly gets a chance to shine here on sax. ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’, a tribute to the transcendence experienced through live music, refers to the ‘criminal clown who’s stolen the throne’, a Trump reference explored more obviously in ‘Rainmaker’, an ominous, brooding condemnation of governmental murder incorporated, built on falsehoods, portrayed through the metaphor of a ‘mean season’. Bruce positively snarls the title phrase, the intensity underscored with searing pedal steel guitar. This was originally written during the Bush administration era, and it certainly wouldn’t have looked astray on 2007’s ‘Magic’.

The salute to former bandmates continues in ‘Ghosts’, as reinforced by the accompanying video images of The Castiles, Danny and Clarence. Quite appropriately, it’s a deliberately rocking testament to the power of music and the recognition that the souls of the departed are embraced that way. With an opening reminiscent of ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’, it has that similar call to arms, and a rousing celebration of life and fellowship. His wish to ‘meet you brother and sister on the other side’ sets up the idea that ‘death is not the end’ in the closing ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, with its triumphant, twanging guitar figure. ‘We’ll meet and live and laugh again’ applies to living spirits, too.

Bruce has often reinforced the idea of a ‘conversation’ between himself and his fans. Over the years this has taken many forms: firstly, of course, the music itself, but also the live experience (being ‘in concert’ with his audience), personal appearances, opportunities for autographs and photos, videos, his online presence, keynote speeches, his autobiography, radio shows… and something as simple and traditional yet heartfelt and personal as a letter. He’s not just a singer, guitarist and performer – he’s a writer. Long may he pursue that connection.

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