—Bruce Springsteen addressing Boston College students, 9/9/20
It’s nearing half a century since music critic Jon Landau declared, “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Not long after Landeau’s article appeared, Springsteen, the 25-year-old Jersey Shore troubadour, burst on the national scene with his third album, Born to Run. The record debuted along with simultaneous Springsteen cover stories on both Time and Newsweek.
Born to Run is an album about escape, about untethering from the ballast of the past in order to chase a more sparkly future beyond the horizon. The title track, specifically, is a blueprint for escaping New Jersey — the “death trap” and “suicide rap” of local walls closing in and dreams collecting dust on the shelves of inherited small-town homes.
It is a very American fantasy, this take on liberation — of motion for betterment’s sake — that stretches back to the earliest days of a young nation with its eyes trained west. As William Least Heat Moon puts it in his masterpiece of American wander, Blue Highways, “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance.”
So the record that brought Springsteen into national consciousness was all about flight — cutting ties in search of greener grass. But a funny thing happened in the decades since. Springsteen’s subsequent body of work has come to reflect quite the opposite. It turned out Springsteen was born to stay. To commit. To dig in — whether to family, cause, or country. And to accept the work required to fight for each.
The work in question changes from album to album. On the follow up to Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, the work meant reconciling its predecessor’s adolescent longing with the unavoidable realities of the adult world. On Born in the U.S.A. it meant exploring the frustrations of marginalized figures in Reagan’s America. The Ghost of Tom Joad illuminated the plight of migrants and other disenfranchised workers. The Rising galvanized the pain and rage and hope of post-9/11 America, as Wrecking Ball did for those reeling from the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Springsteen’s latest album, the just-released Letter to You, continues this legacy of work and commitment. But this time around, the work is different. It’s remembrance.
Letter to You is the 71-year-old Springsteen’s 20th studio album. Rather than cultural analysis or creative empathy or wishful highway extrapolation, Letters to You explores inward paths. It is a parade of friendly ghosts — the bygone loves and comrades that haunt the roads and stages, big and small — of the artist’s past. The speaker of “One Minute You’re Here” strolls a remembered carnival midway, arm in arm with a long-gone friend. “Last Man Standing” presents a catalog of the tiny gigs — “Knights of Columbus and the Fireman’s Ball, Friday night at the Union Hall” — Springsteen played with his teen band the Castilles, which young Springsteen eventually left behind in his ascent. “Ghosts” is a hand reached out to more recent bandmates that were claimed by time, punctuated by artifacts like a buckskin jacket and Fender Twin amp.
The album is injected throughout with these kinds of sharp, stark reminiscences, with a direct application of personal memory not usually seen to such a degree in Springsteen’s work. Lyrics aside, the album’s approach grabs from the past in some wholesale ways, too. It’s Springsteen’s first work with the E Street Band — his musical family since the early 70s — since 2014. And it also includes new versions of several songs written decades ago.
In Letter to You, Springsteen seeks to build bridges to his personal past and sort through the meanings associated with the connections, the distance, and the absence he discovers. As inward reflection — as rumination on what’s dearly departed, on one’s sins and successes, fortunes and failures — this reflection rises throughout the album to resemble a form of prayer, a concept that is sprinkled fairly liberally throughout its 12 songs. Often literally.
To be clear, Springsteen himself readily admits to the suspect piousness of the words wielding in his songs. As he explained at a convocation for new students at Boston College,
This faith appears throughout Letter to You as different kinds of prayer, as a thoughtful engagement with the tensions between presence and absence. In “The Power of Prayer” the speaker works to sift through his troubles in order to appreciate the company of his love as the perfect song crackles from the radio. “If I Was the Priest” offers a plea to the local Jesus-as-sheriff overlooking a frontier-town free-for-all. And the title track has the speaker on his knees asking for the strength to understand himself so he can build a stronger connection to another:
Grabbed my pen and bowed my head
Tried to summon all that my heart finds true
And send it in my letter to you
But whatever you call it — whether it’s prayer or reflection or time-travel or longing — Springsteen’s acts of remembrance are not paralysis-inducing, nor are they purposeless wallowing. Springsteen’s meditation on the past and its faces and echoes and lessons is fuel for the present. In “Letter to You,” he recognizes remembrance as a way to grow and strengthen our bonds. It’s also a force for creativity, as displayed in “House of a Thousand Guitars”:
We’ll rise together till we find the spark
That’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars
It’s those relationships to family, friends, work — the things that demand commitment, that require showing up and staying put — that ultimately provide. It takes work and diligence to stoke these fires, and, if necessary, to head into the past, cup the flames in your hands, and return to light the present. But, it turns out, this work will provide warmth and light, and not only for the one bearing the fire. As Springsteen put it in his remarks to those students at Boston College,
25-year-old Springsteen didn’t know any of that yet. Or at least he didn’t express it when he described the “runaway American dream” and “suicide machines” on the songs of Born to Run. But he knows it now. And he was glad to share that insight with a screenful of 18-year-olds:
And that’s the lesson. Run. Fall. Hurt. Get hurt. Risk. Lose. Rise. That’s life. And it will teach you, eventually, to stick around and work toward something. To create. Build bonds. Laugh. Love. Let things matter. And then fight to hold onto those things. In short, to commit.
Those lessons — and those people and places who helped you learn them — will return again and again as soul fuel, as wisdom to hand on down the line.