If Letter To You, Bruce Springsteen’s twentieth studio album, was the sort of cinematic end-scene it sounds like, it’d feature our hero gazing up at a neon sign reading ‘Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas’, having an unspoken inner epiphany, climbing back on his motorbike and roaring away in the direction of New Jersey.
Last year’s Western Stars saw him single-handedly piece together a plush, orchestral masterstroke of a record, summoning the 60s spirits of Gene Pitney and Burt Bacharach to tell tales of Hollywood has-beens in the sort of retro Californian pop styles that suggested he was preparing himself for a pre-retirement residency on the Vegas Strip, harmonica replaced with a lollipop microphone.
Instead, recoiling once more from the stench of slickness, he got the E Street Band together in his New Jersey home studio for four days, let the tape run and let rip.
Recorded completely live, right down to the vocals, the result is the E Street energy bottled. The 71-year-old Springsteen’s concerns – grief, nostalgia, reactionary anger – might reflect his years, but this is a band that can make the act of writing out a lifetime’s worth of wisdoms in the title track sound as wild and noble as any last-chance power drive.
With its skilful weave of widescreen balladry and heartland rock, the record works as a reflective autumn-years version of The River, and its roots in the past are sunk even further. Three songs here were written in the early 70s and exude the sort of classical Americana mythology that was bread and butter to Springsteen when he was still applying for the job of Boss.
There’s Janey Needs A Shooter, a ragged-Hammond soul epic peopled by stalking cops and careless doctors; the stirring If I Was The Priest, where Jesus, Mary and the Holy Ghost are recast as denizens of a frontier town packed with western caricatures; and Song For Orphans, a folk-rock hymnal echoing Bob Dylan’s sound and scope, a slo-mo camera sweep across a hopeless nation.
Elsewhere Springsteen pays tribute to fallen associates such as Clarence Clemons, Terry Magovern and Danny Federici on vaporous heartbreaker One Minute You’re Here, and gives two tracks over to memorialising George Theiss, founder of his first band The Castiles.
This is no pure nostalgia trip, though. Both House Of A Thousand Guitars and Rainmaker take shots at the ‘criminal clown’ in the White House, and Letter To You is as young at heart as any of Springsteen’s proudest moments, a sign that we’re some way off the credits yet.