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October 25, 2020

The best things about Bruce Springsteen's new album, "Letter to You"

Music Bruce Springsteen
bruce springsteen letter to you documentary Screenshot/via YouTube

'Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You' documentary featurse behind-the-scenes footage of Springsteen and The E Street Band performing together over the years, including as they recorded the band's first album since 2014.

Bruce Springsteen unleashed a force of nature into the ethos a few days ago, as Letter to You, a new studio album recorded with the E Street Band is now available everywhere, and is worth listening to (if you are reading this, though, we assume you have).

And once you listen to it once, you'll find yourself listening to it again. And humming it throughout your day. Because it's a true rock album, and one of the best works of art to come from Springsteen in his illustrious 45-year career.

Instead of musing on with a cliche review of the album, we've decided to — like we do in the sports section of PhillyVoice all the time — hand out a few superlatives. 

So who am I to be making these claims about music, as a sportswriter and not a music critic?

Well, I have impeccable Springsteen credentials. As a kid, my dad brought me up the right way, with everything from Greetings from Asbury Park to Tunnel of Love echoing through the car as he shuttled me around in my youth. Eventually in 2002, I got my first live taste of Bruce, and hearing him and the Band jam to "Kitty's Back" for about 15 minutes during a live performance was enough to get me hooked.

In the 18 years since then, I've seen The Boss in concert around 30 times, including seven on one tour (in 2012) and twice on Broadway. For the record, my favorite album is The River and my favorite song is "Drive All Night." My wedding band is inscribed with "you've got my love." What a great wife I have.

Anyway, "Letter to You" is a masterpiece, and here are some of the reasons why:

Best guitar riff: "If I Was The Priest"

We'll get into this song more a bit later, but the guitar riff after the chorus is kind of a throwback-sounding melody carried by the low-echoing guitar sounds that makes for quintessential Springsteen. I am also a fan of the "Letter To You" riff, and the "Ghosts" riff. Really, there are hooks in almost every song that get your head nodding — but we'll give the throwback song written in 1972 the "award" for the best riff.

Best guitar solo: "Burnin' Train"

This one shreds. At about 2:15 into the third song on the album, a pure Darkness on the Edge of Town era-sounding guitar solo steals this song and takes it to another level. Springsteen himself likes it so much he fires it up a second time. I can't say for sure, but this sounds like a Nils Lofgren special. 

Best chorus: "I'm alive" refrain, Ghosts

"Ghosts" is one of the best songs Springsteen has written in decades and it will surely bring the house down when it is finally performed live — hopefully safely in front of 30,000 people, hundreds of times, in 2021. I dare you to listen to "Ghosts" and not sing along with the ear-wormy chorus:

Alive, I can feel the blood shiver in my bones

I'm alive and I'm out here on my own

I'm alive and I'm coming home

Best vocal performance: The end of "House of 1,000 Guitars"

"House of 1,000 Guitars" is kind of a weird song. I saw a few outlets complain about it, with one even calling the song the worst on the album. But it's actually fantastic, if you can get through the fact that it has a very unusual and more or less nonsensical chorus. The song is the only real political one on the album, urging listers to agree with Springsteen that "it's alright yeah it's alright," something that is easier said than done.

Lyrics aside, the song kind of takes on a new essence of beauty at the very end, when Springsteen sings A Capella (with Roy Bittan's delicate piano). It's absolutely incredible that a 71-year-old man is creating the bone-chillingly perfect vocals that Springsteen does at the end of the song. My wife thought it was done with some editing in the studio, but if you watch the Letter to You documentary on Apple TV+, you'll actually see him sing it and it's all him.

Best story behind a song: "Last Man Standing"

As a typical Springsteen fan boy, I watched a handful of interviews with the artist himself during my intense dive into all things Bruce on the day the album dropped. There was a story he told in one about the real reason he wrote "Last Man Standing", the No. 2 runner up for my "best chorus" designation.

Bruce explained that he has recently become the last living member of his original band The Castiles. That's a burden that comes with age, health, and prosperity. As a 33-year-old man, it's hard for me to relate to that seemingly abstract notion, until I listen to the song. Hear him ask "rock of ages come save me now," and try not to feel something.

Best song originally written before 1973: "If I Was The Priest"

Springsteen reached back, way back to record three never-released pieces of music that he penned in the early 70s, before he was even a signed musician. They are all fantastic. If you aren't sure which ones are the oldies (and can't tell from the titles), it's easy. They're the three songs longer than six minutes. Because of course they are.

"If I Was The Priest" is a ballad that more or less describes the hypocrisy of growing up Catholic (or really any religious denomination)— but in true Bruce fashion it takes place in a saloon in the old west. The lyrics are dense, but the melody is on point and catchy. This is another one I am eager to hear the band nail in a live performance.

Best excuse to have a good cry: "I'll See You In My Dreams"

The final song on the album is an absolute masterpiece, where Springsteen looks death between the eyes and tries to make enough sense of pain and loss and does the enviable — he turns it into a battle cry. And one of the things that unites, well, everyone, is the inevitability and mysteriousness of death. "I'll See You In My Dreams" is, in this writer's opinion, the most beautiful opus about death ever put to music (a close second is Say Anything's Cemetery).

If you have access to Apple TV+ —and if you don't, this is the perfect time to fire up the free seven day trial to watch the incredible companion documentary that shows the making of the album (while you're there, binge Ted Lasso) — the recording of this song is devastating. You can see the band hearing their creation for the first time in the recording studio, with longtime producer Jon Landau breaking down into tears and saying the song had "something magnificent" to it. The look on Bruce's face himself as he sits down and hears the song is very moving.

Best song: "Ghosts"

From the opening drums to Springsteen telling his fans "I hear the sound of your guitar," the song starts with a slowly building tenseness that will eventually manifest in the aforementioned chorus that you'll memorize within one listen. And then you'll picture a packed Meadowlands full of baby boomers (plus, of course, myself) all yelling "I'm Alive" in unison with fists pumping. 

There is not a wasted note, a wasted lyric, nothing. This song is the true product of almost half a century of Springsteen honing his craft for writing songs and for performing them with the E Street Band. When the band recorded Born To Run, they famously took weeks to even settle on a drum sound good enough fit with Springsteen's perfectionist vision of how his music should sound. That recording Letter To You took just four days is not a knock against its quality. Rather, it's a testament to how incredibly good Springsteen has become at doing this.

Best line: "We leave no one alive..." Ghosts

This one really needs no description.

Count the band in then kick into overdrive

By the end of the set we leave no one alive

God, I miss live music.

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