With "Letter to You," Bruce Springsteen reminds us, brilliantly, that we're all on borrowed time

Springsteen's new album, recorded in his New Jersey home studio, brings the E Street Band live energy to our homes

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published October 23, 2020 12:30PM (EDT)

Bruce Springsteen (Columbia Records/Danny Clinch)
Bruce Springsteen (Columbia Records/Danny Clinch)

With "Letter to You," Bruce Springsteen provides fans with a powerful meditation on humanity's transient, ephemeral nature and the inevitability of our own mortality.

Springsteen recorded the album live in his New Jersey home studio with the E Street Band, marking his first new studio recordings with his longtime backing group since 2014's "High Hopes." The LP's live feel brings Springsteen's songs brilliantly to life, with a fusillade of guitars and keyboards in such anthemic numbers as "Letter to You" and the album's unforgettable closer "I'll See You in My Dreams."

One of Springsteen's most inspired choices on "Letter to You" was the inclusion of a trio of his earliest songs, "If I Was the Priest," "Janey Needs a Shooter," and "Song for Orphans." Likely composed in the days before he had a record contract — and certainly prior to the production of his debut album "Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ" (1973) — these tunes are mindful of Springsteen's nascent days as a composer, when he often worked with a rhyming dictionary by his side.

With the E Street Band roaring into life behind these songs, Springsteen's early compositions act like a time-capsule — especially "Janey Needs a Shooter," brimming with the youthful energy and character sketches of "Blinded by the Light" and "Jungleland." At the same time, recording the songs nearly 50 years after their original inspiration finds Springsteen lending the nuance and sagacity of his age to the flights of fancy that he imagined during his early twenties.

While "Letter to You" is chock-full of songs about life's vicissitudes and the commonality of human experience, Springsteen offers clear commentary on the maladies of our times. Take "Rainmaker," a song in which he explores our timeless susceptibility to conmen and snake-oil salesmen — people who prey on our sense of desperation and moral failings.

The Rainmaker, Springsteen reminds us, is that person who pits us against each other, confuses fact with fiction, and, when you're not looking, takes everything you have and then some. "Rainmaker says white's black and black's white," he sings, "Says night's day and day's night." In so doing, Springsteen extols a shrewd diagnosis of our broken politics, a place where "sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad" that they'll turn to anyone, even the most salacious and unqualified, as a salve for their pain.

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In this way, "Letter to You" offers a cautionary tale about the importance of living in the here and now, instead of turning a blind eye to the world's con artists, and embracing our better angels instead. The album's opening track makes this point with an unsubtle power: "One minute you're here," Springsteen sings, "next minute you're gone."

While it may be an instance of over-interpretation on my part, the album's cover art — Danny Clinch's evocative photograph of Springsteen standing across from the Dakota and facing the entrance of the Strawberry Fields Memorial — takes us back to a moment, 40 years ago this December, when the life of John Lennon was extinguished in the blink of an eye. We're all — every one of us — living on borrowed time.

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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