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Springsteen’s Letter to a world making war with its better angels


Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

There was a time when 'The Boss' - at least in Ireland - meant Charlie Haughey. There was also a time - pre-pandemic - when some of us would plan our summer holidays around outdoor concerts by another Boss who came to visit Ireland every other year.

I have vivid memories of standing beside then-taoiseach Enda Kenny as Bruce Springsteen fist-pumped and sang along to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out at the RDS in July, 2012. Or nine summers earlier at the same venue, watching Springsteen sing an impassioned elegy for the people lost in the ruins of the World Trade Centre of 9/11 on You're Missing: "Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair. Papers on the doorstep, but you're not there." Or watching, along with 70,000 other people, him wig out to Twist and Shout at Croke Park in May, 2016.

Courtesy of Covid-19, those three-hour shows seem like they happened in another age, when live music was an integral part of going out.

Recorded live over a week in his home studio in New Jersey last November with the E Street Band (the first album he's recorded live in the studio with the E Street Band since 1984's Born in the USA), the new Springsteen album Letter To You is something we'll have to make do with in the present circumstances.

His 20th studio album is a lament suffused with faith. He seems to be saying with this meditative 12-track collection that music is something that can get us through this, or anything.

New Jersey Catholic Springsteen, who sees his role in music as akin to a vocation or a calling, would think that. Like Bob Dylan or Nick Cave or Bono, Springsteen is in perennial conflict with something deep inside that has left him psychologically bloodied and bruised.

His inner anger seems to come from his troubled relationship with his paranoid schizophrenic father Doug, who caused in him, as he once said, "the chasm where rage, fear, distrust, insecurity and a family-patented misogyny made war with my better angels".

There's plenty making war with his better angels on Letter To You.

It was the death in 2018 of George Theiss, the lead singer of The Castiles, the New Jersey bar band that Springsteen played in from 1965 to 1968, which motivated him to start writing the songs on this album. "Him and I were the last guys from my first band, which meant it left me sort of on my own," he said after George died from lung cancer.

"Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd/I'm the last man standing now," he sings on Last Man Standing. Thoughts of E Street legends Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons (who died in 2008 and 2011 respectively) can't have been far from his mind either.

On the rousing I'll See You in My Dreams - with a guitar sound that has more than faint echoes of the street opera that was Born to Run - he sings, "We'll meet and live and laugh again, for death is not the end". One Minute You're Here, which opens the album with Springsteen on an acoustic guitar, is bleaker, less hopeful: "Big black train comin' down the track/Blow your whistle long and long/One minute you're here/Next minute you're gone".

In his 2016 memoir, Born To Run, Bruce used the metaphor of the train again, this time to describe his depression during the recording of his 2012 album Wrecking Ball: "I was crushed between 60 and 62, good for a year, and out again from 63 to 64," he writes. "Not a good record. Patti will observe a freight train bearing down, loaded with nitroglycerin and running quickly out of track… she gets me to the doctors and says: 'This man needs a pill.'"

There's always been self-doubt and death on his records. Yet mortality is closer than it ever was, as Springsteen is 71 now, and the rock industry is a young man's game. As he sang on Glory Days from the Born in the USA album, "Time slips away and leaves you with nothing, Mister, but boring stories of glory days".

Here, Springsteen revisits his glory days on One Minute You're Here, the track that opens the album. It could be from Nebraska.

Three of the songs here (If I Was the Priest, Janey Needs a Shooter and Song for Orphans) were written when he was a young man, before the release of his debut, 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.

Re-recorded here, the lyrics have a distinct Bob Dylan-esque feeling. (On If I Was A Priest, he sings: "He comes crawlin' 'cross the dry fields like a dark shroud"). When he was first signed in 1972, he was, of course, heralded in some quarters as the New Dylan.

Letter To You is an inspired record by a man who, like all of us right now, is looking for some meaning, and for love. "It's just your ghost/ Moving through the night/ Your spirit filled with light/I need, need you by my side/Your love and I'm alive," he sings on Ghosts.

The album pales in comparison with his records such as Nebraska, Darkness On the Edge of Town or Born To Run. But then, what wouldn't? In 2020, Springsteen remains as much the tortured voice of blue-collar Trump America as he did when he sang on The River in 1979: "I come from down in the valley/Where, Mister, when you're young/They bring you up to do, like your daddy done."

He is still searching for peace in the valley within himself, a light in the darkness.

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