Tuesday, May 11, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1473: Bruce Springsteen

I had an online event tonight, but it ended early. Instead of staring blankly at Netflix, I’m going to write this music review. Then I’ll sit and stare blankly at Netflix.

Disc 1473 is…. Letter to You

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover? This isn’t quite a Giant Head Cover. It is maybe two-thirds of the way there, but that’s it. Bruce looks cold here, but he’s aged well. According to the Interwebs he’s got a net worth of about $500 million, so you can afford a lot warm jackets and high end skin care products with that kind of dosh.

How I Came To Know It: Just another long-time fan checking out the boss’ latest to see if it appealed. It did.

How It Stacks Up: Out of my 12 Springsteen records, “Letter to You” comes in at #10, good enough to bump “Western Stars” and “Devils & Dust” down one spot each, but not so much as to dig into the classic catalogue. And here’s the full list…for now.

  1. Darkness at the Edge of Town: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 612)
  2. Nebraska: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 948)
  3. Born in the U.S.A.: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 769)
  4. Tunnel of Love: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 761)
  5. The Promise: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 305)
  6. The Rising: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 741)
  7. The River: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 654)
  8. Born to Run: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 574)
  9. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 506)
  10. Letter to You: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  11. Western Stars: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1424)
  12. Devils & Dust: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 695)

Ratings: 3 stars

There’s a great moment in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses where the titular character calls his friends around and says:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

These lines, where Ulysses acknowledges old age yet refuses to capitulate to it, echoed in my mind as I listened to “Letter to You.” No, this record is not “Nebraska” nor is it “Darkness” but it is still a solid collection of songs from a man who long ago ceased having to prove anything, but still puts himself out there and makes quality music.

This review won’t be all roses and light, so let’s start with the good stuff. First off, Bruce Springsteen has taken care of his voice. He’s always had the advantage of a multi-octave instrument with a natural rasp that makes every story he tells feel deep and meaningful. The Boss is now 71 years young, but it isn’t limiting him here. He sounds amazing and if he’s hiding anything in the song construction, he’s done it so smoothly I never noticed.

Many of these songs, including “One Minute You’re Here”, “Last Man Standing” and “Ghosts” confront mortality from a place of acceptance and honest retrospection. Sometimes Springsteen is remembering those now gone, and sometimes he’s keenly aware that he’s still here, but that long black ribbon is getting closer to the darkness. And while “One Minute You’re Here” has a weary quaver, and the others more anthemic, none feel morose. If anything, “Ghosts” is an anthem for the ages, and when Springsteen thunders out “I’m alive/I can feel the blood shiver in my bones” you will feel that same shiver. And you will like it.

That said, when I first this line, I thought he was singing “I can feel the blood sugar in my bones” which wasn’t quite as heroic. Every Springsteen record has to have a couple songs like this. On the third track at first I thought he wanted to take me on his “murder train,” and then on my next listen, “bullet train.” Turns out it was “burnin’ train.” This was marginally better than the first option but not nearly as good as the second.

Springsteen digs into his past for “Janey Needs a Shooter” which is a reworking of a song he cowrote years earlier with Warren Zevon. In Zevon’s version it’s Jeannie and it’s a song of the old west. Springsteen’s version is set in a stark urban landscape. I prefer the Zevon version, but both work.

There are also moments where I was less impressed. Sometimes Springsteen gets obsessed with an idea, such as “House of a Thousand Guitars” which might be a fun phrase to sing but made for a hackneyed image. On “Rainmaker” he invokes “Yahweh” when the line works just fine with the less pretentious “God”.

If I Was the Priest” is one of my favourite songs on the record, and a great example of Springsteen blending the stark western feel of “Nebraska” with the lush lyrical quality of something of Asbury Park. This tune, where he imagines Jesus as the sheriff (trust me, it works) he had me in the palm of his hand. At around 4:45 it breaks down naturally to a single piano and the great final line for any western “I told him I was already overdue for Cheyenne”. That moment sits on an unresolved melody, which is exactly what the song needs to leave you staring into the middle distance and wanting to hear it all again.

Except, it doesn’t end. Instead, Springsteen decides to launch into another couple minutes of chorus repetition, harmonica wails and a lengthy electric guitar fadeout. It feels like he’s trying to capture the vigor of his live performances, but all it does is take a perfect song and drag it out without purpose.

After all these decades of brilliance, though, I can forgive the Boss a few long fadeouts the same way I patiently endure his self-serving musical documentaries. In the end, his talent makes it all worth it. Keep sailing, Bruce – you’ve still got it.

Best tracks: One Minute You’re Here, Janey Needs a Shooter, Last Man Standing, If I Was a Priest, Ghosts

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