Later this month, September 23rd to be exact, Bruce Springsteen turns 71 and in A Letter to You he turns the clock back to ’75. Even though A Letter to You is the first single, and title track, of Springsteen’s upcoming record, it sounds like it could be an unreleased track from his iconic record Born to Run. First of all, he invited the E Street band back to record with him, which gives the track and instant familiarity. However, this track is not just a trip down memory lane for the sake of nostalgia, but a reflective journey of spiritual and personal growth.
Before we dig into the lyrics, I have to talk about how wonderful it is to hear Springsteen with the E Street Band. His previous record Western Stars was a largely acoustic and country / folk forward record in the vain of Willie Nelson. This is back to the rock and roll style of the 70s and 80s I fell in love with. The E Street Band is a rock machine by this point and they assemble like a rockstar Voltron to create lush and warm arrangements. Max Weinberg, Stevie Van Zandt and Roy Bittan come together effortlessly and wrap you in a comforting blanket of rock. The best things about the E Street Band is that you can focus on the immense talent of each artist individually, but then step back and admire them as a whole. It is like marvelling at the individual brush strokes of a Monet painting to then step back in awe as you see them combine into an impressionist masterpiece. We still miss Clarence Clemons on sax, but it is always a joy to hear talented musicians make amazing music.
Springsteen’s vocals have a freshness to them that was lacking on Western Stars. He is back to the raspy high octane rock flamethrower I remember on tracks like Born to Run or the back half of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It is even complete with Springsteen screaming “Whoa!” off mic at the end of the first verse as the E Street Band kicks in, which is a classic concert move. The whole song has this great live energy to it that he and the E Street Band have always had a knack of capturing on their records. Springsteen travels down familiar themes of regret, fear and pain; “I wrote ’em all out in ink and blood.”
However, this is a song about songwriting itself and how he has expressed these personal aspects of himself for us. He sings, “In my letter to you / I took all my fears and doubts / In my letter to you / All the hard things I found out / In my letter to you /All that I found true / And I sent it in my letter to you.” In reflecting on the process he has engaged in for decades, Springsteen is not only showing us what he has done for the art we enjoy, but what the process has given to him. There is something freeing about expressing your fears and doubts to another person. For Springsteen, this pain was not only his to carry, but in his work he shared the burden with us, “Dug deep in my soul and signed my name true / And sent it in my letter to you.”
Springsteen’s A Letter to You is a song about the songwriting process, but it is also about so much more. This song is about the healing power of empathy. The track is not about fear, doubt, happiness and pain, but how sharing those parts of your soul with those close to you can free you and heal you. Empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone, but it is about taking on that person’s pain as if it is your own. This creates a deep connection between people and this is a connection Springsteen has made with us as he writes in “ink and blood.”
Listen to A Letter to You