On Thursday, Bruce Springsteen released his new single Letter to You, the title track to an album due Oct. 23. The song marks a reunion with his long-running backing group, the E Street Band. Before recording the new album, they hadn’t worked together since the River Tour in 2016.
“Dug deep in my soul and signed my name true, and sent it in my letter to you.,” Springsteen sings. It’s a song about writing – a memoir or an autobiographical one-man Broadway show, perhaps. Because he has recently done those things.
It’s not much of a song, Letter to You. An organ gurgles, guitars sting and jangle, drums crash. Until Springsteen’s scratchy drawl is heard, we might be listening to something by Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers.
The song rocks in a safe, dad-friendly way. I look forward to humming along to it during a restroom break the next time Springsteen tours with the band.
I’m getting the feeling that Springsteen is past E Street, though. His country-tinged Western Stars solo album from a year ago was excellent. His Broadway show was a smash success. His band isn’t required anymore.
But they need him. Though guitarists Nils Lofgren and Stevie Van Zandt and the other E Streeters have their own careers, being on the road with Springsteen pays extremely well. A tour, at some point, is almost guaranteed. Fans demand it.
Blues legend B..B. King toured relentlessly up until his death. He felt he had no choice. His band needed the gig. Springsteen must know the feeling, paying the cost to be the boss.
In May of 2019, in an on-stage discussion with filmmaker Martin Scorsese set up to promote the Netflix film Springsteen on Broadway, Springsteen said he’d gone some seven years without writing new material for E Street. But then an album’s worth of new songs for the group just popped out of him.
“I know where it came from,” he said, “but at the same time, it just came out of almost nowhere.”
If the uninspired lead single Letter to You came out of nowhere, it came kicking and screaming. If he was suffering from writer’s block, he may not be over it yet. Ignoring his muse and stuck for tunes, he wrote something about writing a letter – a trick used by the likes of The Beatles (Paperback Writer) and Chuck Berry (Roll Over Beethoven).
“Beneath a crowd of mongrel trees, I pulled that bothersome thread,” Springsteen sings. “Got down on my knees, grabbed my pen and bowed my head.” I’d probably bow my head too – in shame – if I wrote anything as self-serious as “I pulled that bothersome thread.”
He goes on about summoning all that he finds true and sending it in his letter to you. Then he yelps a Springsteen yelp, trying in vain to rally an E Street energy that isn’t quite there.
The song’s video shows the band members arriving at the studio, big grins all around. The gang is back together. We see Van Zandt air-drumming, good times. Springsteen scribbles on a legal pad, pulling those bothersome threads.
The song fades out, as things do.
The Born to Run band has been Springsteen’s main backing group since 1972. Not being able to come up with a song for them in seven years was a sign – a stop sign. Note to Springsteen: Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
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