No one does rock delirium like Bruce Springsteen.
It’s in those moments, as the marathon concert hurtles into its fourth hour and descends into cycling sessions of jam-band madness — and fans aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle’s audacity or power — that The Boss feels most unparalleled, if not immortal.
Rarely have Springsteen’s studio albums, especially those released this century, captured the same feelings of crackling electricity or unadulterated bar-room joy. Too much studio polish, too many outside hands.
Recorded in five days at Springsteen’s home studio in Colts Neck — the group’s first-ever album to be laid down with virtually no instrumental or vocal overdubs — the product is familiar, affecting and raw, a welcome return to their patented Jersey rock sound.
Unlike “High Hopes,” Bruce’s last full-band LP released in 2014, “Letter” comprises mostly new and unheard songs, many of which are draped in nostalgic scenes or comment candidly on the album’s greater, more sobering themes: mortality and endurance of spirit.
The 12-track record, officially out Oct. 23, is bookended by tunes that broach the latter topics, first in the folksy contemplation “One Minute You’re Here” and then the more rocksteady “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which declares “death is not the end” in its chorus. Around the record’s middle, “Last Man Standing” finds Springsteen, 71, reflecting on the recent death of George Theiss, a longtime friend and the only other remaining member of his high school band, The Castiles.
Bruce never becomes too maudlin, however, instead paying homage to fallen friends — Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici among them — through heaps of heartland rock not so distant from the band’s “Born in the U.S.A.” era. The booming single “Ghosts,” the band’s most stadium-ready anthem in years, soars easily, as Springsteen reaffirms his frontman’s ferocity, wailing: “By the end of the set we leave no one alive.”
At least four new tracks hinge on similar memories of past performances or the power of music itself — the same stuff Springsteen gabs about in his interviews, Broadway run and autobiography — but after all the character-driven narratives of last year’s meandering “Western Stars” album, it’s actually quite refreshing to hear Bruce sing about his own life again. Only once does he touch politics, lamenting “the criminal clown has stolen the throne” — presumably referring to his public nemesis President Donald Trump — on the slow-burning “House of A Thousand Guitars.”
Throughout the record, Springsteen appears rejuvenated and bold, particularly on confident revamps of three decades-old but never officially released outtakes: “If I Was the Priest,” “Song for Orphans” — both written in the early ’70s, prior to Columbia Records signing — and “Janey Needs a Shooter,” from the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sessions several years later. The impassioned “Priest” jumps as the best of the bunch, complete with a sweeping, sing-along chorus and wordy verses akin to Springsteen’s early Bob Dylan obsession. Much of the same goes for “Orphans” but “Janey” — not to be confused with Warren Zevon’s “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” which Bruce helped write — stands out as the finest exemplifier of the band’s colossal live show. The bombastic refrain repeats again and again through the outro, all clearly one take as Springsteen sings each passage with new flavor.
It’s worth noting on “Janey,” “Priest” and elsewhere on the album the singer’s performance is far from perfect. The aged vocal cords crack, he momentarily falls out of tempo or off-key. But again, this is the way to listen to Bruce Springsteen. He can be deliberate, he can be messy. Take both.
The instrumentals, on the other hand, are generally flawless — the best the band has sounded since 2002′s comeback record “The Rising,” if not earlier. The arrangements are lush and exciting, with plenty of space allotted for each member to burst through. Max Weinberg’s drum cracks, Roy Bittan’s simple yet memorable piano breaks, Charles Giordano’s scene-setting organ work and, for the first time, discernible space was made for Jake Clemons to let loose on saxophone, laying into a Clarence-worthy solo on “The Power of Prayer.”
When the band eventually returns to touring — 2022 at the earliest, Springsteen said last month — much of “Letter to You” will deserve to make the lengthy setlist. For the first time in many album cycles, fans will call for the new tracks.
And if it comes to pass that this is the last “Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band” album — considering how infrequently the group now records as well as their advanced ages, it’s certainly possible — “Letter To You” would be a fitting finale, their spirits aligned and alight once more.
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