Letter To You (Sony)
There’s a certain type of fan – and if we’re honest, in some form or other that is most of us - for whom the debate ended long ago.
While their favourite artists may dabble here, experiment there, explore alternatives on occasion, there are some facts that long exposure - you might say early exposure and long reinforcement - have fixed as indisputable truths.
Among these facts is that notwithstanding good material in these experiments, there is a “best” version of the sound and style of said artist. A version which is not just most effective but most “truthful” to the core or origins of the artist and our connection with them. Something borne out by checking the responses at any show, or chart position of greatest hits and classic albums.
See various stages of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell careers, the fin de siècle Radiohead, Paul Weller on and off, and PJ Harvey often.
The last week of this month offers two prime examples of this debate/non-debate, with last Friday a new album from Bruce Springsteen, reunited with his foundation group, The E Street Band, and a new Elvis Costello album, without his long-standing (mostly foundational) group, The Imposters, due this Friday.
Springsteen’s last album, Western Stars, was a record of long-existing songs made with a small assortment of players and a subdued palette, packed more strings than guitars, was framed in the manner of a middle-of-the-road pop/country record of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and felt deliberately small beer.
I grew to love it, putting it alongside 2005’s Devils & Dust, another solo-ish project, as the best things he’d done in the past 20 years. But that’s not a universal opinion.
To the relief of many, Letter To You is not just an album made with the E Street Band in four days of frantic, no second thoughts, action (which is a marked difference for the notoriously painstaking Springsteen), it is in part an album about the E Street Band.
That’s a combination you might call core values for Springsteen fans, because they - actually, we, for there’s no point pretending I’m not a devotee - have come to see the band as standing for a version of humanity we’d love to be: close and dedicated to each other, intense but always seeking to peak at joy, emotional without being crippled by it, indefatigable while knowing that “by the end the set we’d leave no one alive”.
The album mostly drives hard, even in relatively quiet tracks, with the full scope of the twin-keys/multiple-guitars/tub-thumping drums sound deployed to rouse you not just from your seat but from any hint of ennui; there are saxophones arriving to soar and romanticise in equal measure, and harmonica sometimes to remind you of aches; and if you’re not singing along by the second chorus, have you been paying attention?
Several songs refer to the mythology of the stage and the brotherhood thereon: House Of A Thousand Guitars, while aiming slightly oblique at Trump takes solace in a place of unity; Last Man Standing draws from Springsteen’s precursor group, The Castilles, whose last remaining other member died four years ago; Ghosts opens with the couplet “I heard the sound of your guitar/Coming from the mystic bar”, that feels like holy writ; and I’ll See You In My Dreams is a farewell-for-now to members lost, which closes the album as a kind of wrap your arms around each other elegy.
In short, this is an album made for a Springsteen concert experience , which is itself a shameless, but never tasteless, keepsake of truisms as truth and entertainment as a communal moment.
That’s an event we have no chance of seeing for some time, if ever, and we know all too well what we are missing. And needing. So here comes the cavalry.
Burnin’ Train could open a show with a Sunday church prelude, an exciting snare drum run up to the first words and a nothing-on-the-tracks momentum. The Power Of Prayer enters on piano before a quick screen door slam as the band arrives, and then the saxophone serenades in a way which would close in any couples in the room. And Janey Needs A Shooter (which has been floating around for 40 years and had a rewrite of sorts by Warren Zevon) feels like a mid-show powerhouse that here sounds like something from The River pushed into the 1980s.
Not surprisingly then, Letter To You has been earning the kind of reviews from fans and critics that celebrates every part of that return to familiarity.
For my part, that familiarity carries inherent problems as there are times when it veers past formula to the edges of parody. Sure, that’s part of the nature of the style and undoubtedly the tricks work (well, maybe not Ghosts), but away from the massed conviction of a live show their status as truth-dressed-as-tricks feels more open to question.
Interestingly, the two pre-fame songs exhumed by Springsteen for this record, If I Was The Priest (which he performed for Columbia Records’ John Hammond in the hope of being signed) and Song For Orphans - both rich with characters in wordy detail, strong nods to Dylan and Van Morrison, lots of Catholicism and youthful romanticism – feel fresher, or at least predictable in different ways.
They help the last third of the album regather itself to end on a high, and come close to the record’s other peak, its opening duo.
One Minute You’re Here is Springsteen in near-home demo territory of ultra-close singing, minimal instrumentation and a voice of need, experience and sadness. It throws back to Western Stars and Tunnel Of Love as much as Nebraska and Devils & Dust.
Letter To You just about holds in its soulful rock intensity but doesn’t hide its vulnerability, feeling earthy and sinewy but not too muscular. There’s an emotional core here that connects to Darkness On The Edge Of Town’s ripping back of the things we use to hide.
Here’s the thing though, as those five records just mentioned are pretty much my favourite Springsteen albums, am I just saying my favourite cliches are better than your favourite cliches?
I don’t think so, but then again I wouldn’t would I?
Fans: we’re tricky beggars.