It’s hard to say why my first instinct last Thursday night, when the vote counts started to turn in Joe Biden’s favor, was to put on my headphones and go for a walk while listening to Bruce Springsteen. Though I have a few theories. For one, his latest album Letter To You had just been released, so The Boss has been at the forefront of my mind lately. Also, Bruce and Biden are both seasoned veterans of their trades from the tri-state area that have very storied and successful careers, and yet still somehow manage to retain their working-class roots. But most of all, Bruce is just one of those artists that brings me some level of comfort in times of uncertainty. Yet most of his songs, no matter how anthemic, always seem to have a level of overcoming darkness, which has not only been on the edge of town the past 4 years, but has threatened to swallow it up completely.
In addition to all that, it’s hard to think of another artist where so many of their albums feel so tied to the presidential administrations they came out in. Maybe this is more a product of music writers trying to find a thread for Bruce’s late-career output, but at the same time makes sense for an artist who’s always been fairly politically outspoken. I’m not sure where this started exactly, but for my money, it’s of Born In The U.S.A., with its Reagan era bluster paired with an underlying soberness. Then you’ve got the flurry of Bush-era albums that came out in the 00s: the post-9/11 bravado of 2002’s The Rising, the Iraq War ruminations of Devils & Dust, and the beating back the despair of 2007’s Magic. Maybe it says something that Bruce’s results are a little more mixed when a Democrat is in the White House considering his two Obama-era albums are just fine and his 90s albums are probably the least remarkable of his career.
So how does Letter To You fit into all of this? Well, taken together with last year’s excellent Western Stars, it does fulfill my theory that Bruce makes better albums when Republicans are in power. Still, I wouldn’t say it strikes me as an album particularly influenced by Trump, though how much it sounds like a traditional Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band album feels like a kind of rebuke to the insanity and chaos of the Trump years. Letter To You was recorded over a week with The E Street Band playing almost the entire album live with minimal overdubs, so it feels very much like old friends reconvening in the midst of a pandemic, even if it was recorded a few months before the pandemic started.
So because of that “live band” approach to recording, Letter To You ends up sounding very much like a straight-up rock album and perhaps the best recreation of the band’s live sound on record since the ’70s. With a lot of the more recent E Street albums, a lot of the band’s living members kind of tend to get lost in the mix of more modern production touches. But here, you get all of the musical touches that any Bruce fan fell in love with in the first place, in addition to the always solid bedrock of Bruce’s songwriting. Roy Bittan’s elegant piano lines float over each song, Steven Van Zandt’s raspy back-up vocals embolden them, and the sax lines of Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake thrillingly evoke The Big Man himself.
Lyrically, a lot of what Bruce writes about on Letter To You isn’t so far off from the over-the-hill characters telling tall tales of their youth from Western Stars. However, here it feels a lot more like Bruce is writing about his own life rather than characters who you can see a lot of Bruce in. Springsteen has said that his inspiration for the album came after hearing about the death of the last living member of his teenage band The Castilles, which is most overtly covered in “Last Man Standing”. So the album has this feeling of looking back on your younger years and reflecting a bit, yet the songs also are just as much about the power of music and how that can be an antidote to whatever depression may be nipping at your heels into old age.
It’s now dawning on me that I also equate Bruce Springsteen with Joe Biden because his campaign would often use “Land of Hope and Dreams” before or after speeches, though this might have been a song Obama used too. Not that Biden’s campaign hasn’t stolen from Obama before. Anyways, in spite of whatever GOP shenanigans we may be seeing pop up the next month or two, I think we do finally have some reason to be filled with the kind of corny optimism of a Bruce Springsteen song. It’s just nice to see that after a few years of creative hibernation, The Boss himself also has reason to be filled with the corny optimism of a Bruce Springsteen song.