“It’s weird,” Bruce Springsteen once said about his regular accompanists, the E Street Band, “’cause it’s not really a touring band or just a recording band. And it’s definitely me — I’m a solo act, y’know.”
The singer’s albums come out under his name alone, but it’s “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band” when he tours with the E Streeters. Gigs involve extravagant displays of fellowship, with the singer introducing his musicians in the manner of a carnival barker unveiling the seven wonders of the world. Yet he has been ruthless in dispensing with the “testifying, death-defying, legendary E Street Band” when he judges it necessary. “We were put together strictly to serve Bruce,” drummer Max Weinberg observed in 1999.
Their service resumes on Springsteen’s new album, Letter to You, his first outing with the E Street Band since 2014’s High Hopes. It follows a busy passage of time for the singer. In 2016, he published his memoir Born to Run, a revelatory account of the inner life behind his heroic facade, including a long experience of depression. The autobiography inspired the staging of a one-man show that he brought to Broadway, which ended up being extended to 236 nights. Then came the release of last year’s album Western Stars, a whimsical exercise in the un-Bruce-like register of orchestral country-pop.
He reconvened the E Street Band in 2016 when he took his 1980 album The River on the road, for what became that year’s top-grossing tour with revenues of $268m. But he suffered writer’s block when it came to penning new songs to record with his New Jersey brothers-in-arms. His touring life with the E Street Band had become uncoupled from his studio work. He feared he would never make another record with them.
It took the gift of an acoustic guitar from a fan, handed over to him at one of the Broadway shows, for the dam to break. According to Springsteen, the guitar lay around at his home until he picked it up one day and the nine new songs on Letter to You flowed forth. The summons to the E Street Band followed.
The last time he suffered a similar block was before his 2002 album The Rising, which reunited him with the band after an even longer recording break of 18 years. The spur on that occasion was the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In a New York Times profile, Springsteen spoke of being accosted by a fan in a Jersey Shore parking lot soon after September 11. “We need you!” the fan shouted. Always attuned to rock’s role in American history and his own role in rock’s history, Springsteen did his duty. But the resulting album was dutiful in the wrong sense. It was a leaden, automatic version of the sacred noise that he and the E Street Band are able to confect from the base material of bar-room rock and roll.
Letter to You arrives with his nation once again in peril. But social commentary is kept to a minimum. There’s a reference to the 45th president of the US as “the criminal clown who stole the throne” on “House of a Thousand Guitars”, while “Rainmaker” is a muscular fable about a conman tricking a desperate rural community. Otherwise, however, Donald Trump — whose use of “Born in the USA” during his 2016 campaign rallies was condemned by Springsteen, causing Trump to riposte, “I don’t need little Bruce Springsteen” — is ignored in Letter to You.
Its prevailing mood is reflective, picking up where the memoir and one-man show left off. Yet this contemplativeness is given the charged E Street treatment, a stirring musical engine with big drums, muscle-car riffs, fishtailing swirls from the organ and emphatic piano chords. Springsteen roars his vocals with magnificent power, maximally dramatic rather than melodramatic. How he has reached the age of 71 without permanently blowing a vocal gasket is one of the great mysteries of laryngology.
Formed in 1972, the E Street Band cut their teeth in the New Jersey coastal resort Asbury Park, at the time a thriving centre for rock bands and musicians. Bassist Garry Tallent is the only original member remaining. After a flirtation with a looser, jam-band style of playing under the auspices of soon-to-depart keyboardist David Sancious — whose family address in the New Jersey town Belmar was the source of the band’s name — the E Street Band had settled into a honed rock and roll unit by the time of Springsteen’s breakthrough, 1975’s Born to Run.
Their current line-up is similar to then, although death has diminished their ranks. Letter to You opens with “One Minute You’re Here”, an elegy commemorating a fallen comrade. “I’m so alone,” Springsteen sings. The sentiments echo Born to Run’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, a romanticised account of the formation of the E Street Band. “I’m on my own,” Springsteen sang on that occasion — but he wasn’t really on his own in the song: sax player Clarence Clemons shadowed him on backing vocals. The “Big Man”, as he was dubbed in the song, died in 2011.
“Last Man Standing” contains another lyrical echo of an old song. It looks back at a young rock band led by a singer in “a snakeskin vest and a sharkskin suit” taking a crowd “on a mystery ride”. It leads back, obliquely, to “The E Street Shuffle”, from Springsteen’s second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, where young blades “dressed in snakeskin suits” swagger through the summer night. But “Last Man Standing” goes back further, too. It is about Springsteen’s first band, the Castiles, in which he played lead guitar. With the death of their singer George Theiss in 2018, he is the only member left alive.
The inclusion of three songs originally written in the early 1970s give Letter to You a sense of tying up loose ends (the title track opens with the singer pulling a “bothersome thread” before “grabbing my pen”). Like the rest of the material, they were recorded live in the studio, the first time he and the E Street Band have worked that way since Born in the USA in 1984. The effect is designed to recapture the sustained intensity of their marathon concert shows.
“With Bruce, you wind up treating those four hours on stage as if someone said, ‘You’ve got four hours left on Earth. What are you going to do with them?’" guitarist Nils Lofgren said in 1999. With Letter to You, he and the E Street Band bring their seize-the-moment mentality to the act of memorialising the past. Within that fusion lies another: the two sides of Springsteen’s performing self, the solo act and the bandleader, have been repaired.
‘Letter to You’ is released by Columbia Records on October 23. An accompanying documentary of the same name is released the same day on Apple TV+
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