From 1973's Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. to 1987's Tunnel of Love, The Boss wrote album after album's worth of truly great songs. His muse returned on 1995's acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2002's 9/11 influenced triumph The Rising but has been sporadic ever since.
Always a searcher, Springsteen has now been re-energized as a songwriter by the twin calamities of loss and mortality. Letter To You, his 20th album, bears the impact not only of Clarence Clemons' passing but also the recent revelation that he is now the last man alive from his first band, The Castiles. The man who once launched himself off PA towers with wild abandon, proclaiming his stone desire, has become a 71-year-old who's finally played the ace card he's had all along: a return to the studio with the E Street Band.
Recorded live with the band at his Stone Hill Studio near his New Jersey home, Letter To You—unlike marathon Springsteen sessions from the past—was tracked in a mere five days. The sound is not the crisp digital world of his solo projects but the full-bodied band sound chock-full of guitar chords, organs, glockenspiels, harmonicas, Roy Bittan's piano and the welcome pounding of the mighty Max Weinberg. Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons provides ghostly echoes on his uncle's horn.
After opening with the acoustic solo number One Minute You're Here with the singer laying his penny down on the tracks, the E Street vibe floods in on the title track. The acoustic piano-led House of a Thousand Guitars, speaks for "good souls near and far," while Rainmaker hints at politics where "folks need to believe in something so bad." Three old songs written in the '70s anchor the album. Janey Needs a Shooter, written for Darkness on the Edge of Town and later loosely covered by Warren Zevon, has long been one of the strongest Bruce outtakes. He reaches back further, all the way to Greetings, for If I Was the Priest and Song for Orphans. Both are solid and Dylanesque, filled with the dense often jabberwocky wordplay of his long-ago debut. Once exhilarating signs that a great talent was rising, these songs now indicate that after exploring many artistic sideroads, that same virtuoso has taken a step forward by returning to his roots.