“Time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but/Boring stories of glory days.” So sang The Boss at the height of his own glory days on the multiplatinum Born in the U.S.A. album. It’s one of the best lines from that great album (amongst stiff competition), in that it can sound incredibly funny or incredibly sad depending on what kind of mood you’re in when you hear it.
Here we are, nearly 40 years later, and inevitably time has slipped away and left Springsteen with the same urge to recount his glory days that he used to mock. First there was his memoir Born to Run, released in 2016. Then there was his Springsteen on Broadway show from 2017-18, which rehashed many of the stories from the memoir and charged $400+ a head for the privilege of listening to them (Netflix and a soundtrack album allowed the rest of us poor schmucks to listen in too). Now there’s Letter to You, an album haunted by ghosts and memories of the past.
The redeeming feature in all of this nostalgia-mongering is that time might have slipped away and left him with nothing mister but stories of glory days… but they’re not boring. Born to Run is one of the most successful rock memoirs because it’s filled with very readable, funny and well-told tales from his youth, such as the time he drove across America with his buddy despite being unable to drive, or the attempts of him and his mates to avoid the draft for the Vietnam war. Springsteen on Broadway may have been a rip-off but Springsteen’s dynamite comic timing brings its autobiographical anecdotes to life and has you hanging on every word, so that it rarely comes across as gratuitously narcissistic. Both the book and the show prove how nostalgia, just like anything else in life, can be tapped into and made relatable and entertaining by the penmanship of a good writer.
After all, any stories of glory days can be interesting – it’s only the ways that they’re told that usually makes them boring.
Letter to You isn’t boring either; in fact, I’m tempted to say that it’s Springsteen’s finest studio album of the millennium. Its obsession with the past is tempered by Springsteen’s wisdom, and made winning by the usual marked contrast between his macho appearance and vulnerable open-heartedness. So Letter to You begins and ends with poignant tributes to departed friends and former bandmates, both directed to a “you” (as is the title song) that is left open in order for people to insert their own departed loved ones into their narrative. The stadium-ready “Ghosts” attaches the full-blooded rush of its chorus to the deathly lines “It’s just your ghost moving through the night/Your spirit filled with light”, reminding us of life and death at the same time.
And ghosts of the past haunt the album in other ways, both from Springsteen’s own and other musician’s pasts. Three of the songs are actually newly recorded versions of oldies from The Boss’s back catalogue (one of which, “If I Was the Priest”, is the best thing on here). “Song for Orphans” sees Springsteen playing the Bob Dylan tribute act, with the melody of the verses almost identical to “My Back Pages” (something that master musical thief Dylan would surely grin at), harmonica at the end, and lines such as “There’s orphans junked on silver mountains, lost in celestial alleyways”. And as others have noted, the chord progression of “Ghosts” is mighty similar to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”.
What stops all of these ghosts from the past from overwhelming the album are the living, breathing members of The E Street Band. These songs were all recorded live in the studio, and it shows: there’s a responsiveness to each other that makes the music more engaging than on most recent Springsteen albums. It creates a sense of unity that is uplifting, even if the concept of togetherness is sometimes taken too far, such as when sax and piano, and later guitar and piano, play exactly the same notes in the solos on “Last Man Standing”. Yet hearing The E Street Band replicate their Darkness-era sound on “Janey Needs a Shooter” is an undeniable rush for all of their old fans, with the pounding piano in particular sounding like it was lifted straight from old tapes of those sessions. It provides a tasty lockdown treat for rock n’ roll fans; yet even tastier is “If I Was the Priest”, which not only is the highlight of Letter to You, but would’ve been a highlight on Darkness or The River or any other classic era album you’d care to mention too. It’s that strong.
The band’s unity does have the downside of not allowing individual players to stand out. Jake Clemons, in particular, either isn’t allowed to or isn’t able to project his saxophone into a listener’s consciousness as forcefully as his uncle Clarence used to. But special mention this should go to Charles Giordano on the organ, who does project himself, and whose presence always seems to lift a song to a higher plane.
As usual, the whole thing’s undeniably The Boss’s show, despite his unmistakeable affection for all of his long-running bandmates, and his personality is what makes the album engaging for 58 minutes. His propensity for grandiosity and overstatement only sets off the gag reflex twice, unfortunately in a row, with “The Power of Prayer” and “House of a Thousand Guitars”. But mostly he’s in fine form, confronting the spectre of death with an undiminished earnest intensity in his vocals, whilst rarely getting too dewy-eyed over all of his nostalgic reminiscences.
But he never lets you forget that he cares: about life, death, friendship, love, music, and so much else. And unless you’re a hopeless cynic, that’s something to be celebrated.