In the first 10 years or so of Bruce Springsteen’s recording career, a common criticism about his albums is that he had a tendency to underplay and over-sing, undoubtedly the result of Springsteen simply wanting his poetic, world-weary lyrics to be heard more clearly. Assuming you agree with this assessment, it was a problem that was easily corrected in the live setting, where, as a proud bandleader, Springsteen could let the E Street Band shine as a unit (and individually) while still allowing the words and his playing to be heard right along with them, all on more equal footing.
Aside from its crisp black-and-white presentation, a great source of the warmth and melancholy of the new documentary Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is watching something that has almost never happened in the musician’s nearly 50 years of making records—he and the band recorded his whole new album (due Friday) in less than a week at Bruce’s home studio last November, all in the same room with almost no overdubbing (the last time they even got close to recording like this was during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions). They didn’t rehearse and Bruce didn’t even play the band demos before they began to record each song. As we see, he pulls everyone together to hear him play the song on an acoustic guitar, they talk out the pacing and rhythm, figure out who’s doing what, and record a few takes. At least from what I can hear, the results are powerful, filling the room with life, friendship and more than a few ghosts.
At 71 years old, Springsteen has seen a lot of close friends die, including bandmates Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. Above all else, Letter to You is a tribute to the E Street Band and how they are still as vital and energetic, and still play like they need the money. Their performances fill the room and then some, and director/editor and frequent Springsteen collaborator Thom Zimny captures their camaraderie with a fly-on-the-wall intimacy and reveals how collaborative their process can be. Nearly every band member offers ideas at one point or another about how a song should sound, and Bruce barely bats an eye as the adjustments are made.
But one of the primary jumping off points for the songwriting in Letter to You was the death of the singer in Springsteen’s first band, the Castiles, a loss that left Bruce the last surviving member of that group and one that led him to pen songs with titles like “One Minute You’re Here,” “Ghosts,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and most to the point, “Last Man Standing.” We hear 10 of the 12 songs on the album, more of less in full, including two of the three songs that Springsteen and the band recorded that were actually written prior to his first album, as part of a series of acoustic and piano publishing demos he recorded hoping other people would cover his wordy, loopy early-days songs. Only one of the three, “Janey Needs a Shooter,” was even attempted by the E Street Band, back in 1978.
If you include the audio version of his 2016 Born To Run autobiography, his Springsteen on Broadway run, the 2019 concert film Western Stars, and now Letter to You, Springsteen has been narrating his legacy to his fanbase for years, talking them through the sacred and profane moments of his life, including his great loves (his mother, music, cars, his own family), his struggles with depression, and now the realization that death is closer than it has ever been. As the album recording session is wrapping up, Springsteen leads a toast (there’s a great deal of end-of-day drinking in this movie) and jokingly says “We’re doing this until they put us in a box,” which gets a laugh, but it’s a nervous one. There’s a strange and haunting finality to both the film and these songs, but it isn’t an overwhelmingly sad or morbid experience. It’s a salute to a group of musicians who have devoted their entire adult lives to bringing us great and meaningful music.
Springsteen has always looked at his singer/songwriter life as a job, with all the working-class pride and devotion that entails. And perhaps that sense of closing up shop is just what we’re going to have in his music from now on, even if he keeps writing and recording until he’s 100. He’s brought us this far, and there’s no reason not to trust him for as long as he’s willing to share. Letter to You is the next chapter, and it’s one not afraid to show its age or its relevance.
The film begins streaming Friday on Apple TV+.
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