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Letter To You proves Springsteen is still on fire

"The antithesis of the zoom call", Michael Athey highlights the personal edge of Springsteen's latest rocker.

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Image Credit: Bruce Springsteen

Rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen has achieved some impressive statistics with his latest album, Letter To You. The album not only went straight to number one but outsold the rest of the top five combined. It marked his 12th number one album, and Springsteen is now the first ever solo artist to have a number one album in five different decades. I suppose we should expect nothing less from the man who has thoroughly earned the title “The Boss” but joking aside the extraordinary nature of these figures cannot be understated. However, it does rightfully raise the question, what makes Letter To You so special and why does it resonate with so many people?

To be blunt, it is not because he bravely explores any brand-new musical territory. Get your spotter’s guide out because all the familiar Springsteen-isms and tropes stand on ceremony here. With an abundance of references to “rivers”, “trains” and those infamous saxophone solos, the album could easily be adapted to a crude student drinking game if you wished. It also doesn’t apply his traditional sound to a new lens, like Sam Fender did last year, giving a gritty introspection of the Geordie patriot’s home region’s social and political issues alongside Springsteen’s sound.

Yet despite being hardly ground-breaking, Letter To You has struck a major chord with myself and many others.

This is thanks to the personal edge that Springsteen brings to the album. Although still very much the rocker you would expect from Springsteen, he surprised me by presenting a touching emotional edge as he deals with human frailty throughout the album. A precedent he sets from the opening track as he laments the passing of a friend, breathing “one minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone”. Standout track, ‘Last Man Standing’ continues with this theme as he realises out of all his friends from his first band – The Castiles – he is the last surviving member. All these emotional reflections that are raised are steeped in poignancy. It has after all been a year like no other, so there is definitely a feeling of this being an album for the times. As such, seeing the legend open up in such a candid manner makes forging a deep attachment to this album easy.

With such a focus on personal loss, it makes his musings on religion quite understandable as well. Religion is a theme that runs through the album as songs such as, ‘The Power of Prayer’, ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ and ‘If I Was A Priest’ clearly suggest. I learnt from his biography that Springsteen’s relationship with religion has always been frayed, resulting from a painfully brutish education at his Catholic school. He did ultimately bitterly accept though that “once a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic”, and the impact of dealing with his personal loss and emotional frailties caused him to fully confront this reality. However, just because he’s still “on the team”, as he puts it, Letter To You shows Springsteen learning he doesn’t have to play by their rules. Instead, over the album he crafts his own means of worship, finding faith and connection through the best way he knows how: music. Equally cathartic and entertaining it also ends the album on a positive note. Arguing in the final track that death doesn’t have to be the end, for he will still see his friends going strong in his dreams and memories.

What ultimately makes the album succeed is that it fulfils the album’s title: it is a Letter. The E Street Band’s insistence of recording it live provides this kinetic energy that alongside Springsteen’s lyrics breathes human agency into the record. In this sense, the success of the album is anything but surprising because this human element is what we all desire in the age of social distancing. In many ways, the album is the antithesis of the zoom call. Listening is like sitting at the foot of a fiery hearth, sharing with us a reassuring heat to the cold subject matter at hand. We’ve gone through the most turbulent year, but The Boss is still very much on fire, and his album offers some of that comforting warmth to us.

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