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On Bruce Springsteen’s New Album, the Boss Reflects on the Boss

But Letter to You is more than just another trip back through his glory days.

10/25/2020 7:59:00 PM

On his new album, Springsteen avoids the political and sticks to the personal. Mostly.

But Letter to You is more than just another trip back through his glory days.

making-of documentaries to this album’s) now seems to settle for cliché all too easily. In part that’s because he has too much life behind him not to be dwelling on eternal verities. But an album that starts with the key line “One minute you’re here/ The next you’re gone” and closes with a gloss on Lead Belly’s standard “Goodnight, Irene” refrain “

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I’ll see you in my dreams” is reprising a lot of ultra-familiar sentiments. And when he endeavors to swell them up to Springsteen-epic size, they can seem more strained than grand.The worst case here is “House of a Thousand Guitars,” which attempts to invoke a hopeful image of music as a holy meeting place where differences can be set aside and the predations of the powerful escaped. But that central phrase doesn’t soar, partly because it doesn’t flow phonetically enough to carry the freight, and also because in 2020 a thousand frankly sounds like too many guitars. Guitars are no longer the universal instrument of the common people, if they ever were, so a thousand of them sounds as oppressive as it does utopian—like a retired white boomer’s fantasy collecting obsession that’s driving his family crazy. There’s a similar try-hard-ness about “The Power of Prayer,” another song about the spiritual significance of music that I find more sententious than moving. It actually has some interesting existential detours within it, but the

and here’s the moralpushiness of the refrain is reductive.It’s always been a flub to regard Springsteen as a singer of protest songs.In other cases, songs that are fine on their own simply feel like they’re making the same point the one a couple of tracks ago did. There’s a growing temptation to shrug, and I start to long for another more sensual song (along with “Burnin’ Train”), or one about parenthood or marriage, for variety’s sake—his wife is one of his bandmates, after all, so it wouldn’t be far off theme. The juxtaposition with the early Dylan-damaged songs makes me think, too, of the contrast with the artist’s youthful hero—Uncle Bob has only gone on getting weirder as he’s gotten older,

as his album earlier this year amply showed. With Springsteen, by contrast, it can seem like the regular Joe costume that he strategically suited up in decades ago has kind of sealed around him, and suffocated his imp of the perverse.Still, there were good reasons he put it on in the first place. Hailing from a working-class family and town, he quickly came to want to use his creative-oddball powers to represent voices that rarely can be heard for themselves. Along with his genius for showmanship, his ability to empathize and find narratives for ordinary experience—despite, from the first, his refusal to live a mundane life himself—is why he’s Bruce Springsteen and a thousand other guitar guys are not. Aging and death and losing some people and cherishing the ones you still have around you (with the E Street Band sonically incarnating those companions)—none of that is trite, and neither is addressing it in direct and simple terms, accessible across all kinds of social categories. Many people are going to hear their lives in it, and often I do too.

Part of my initial reaction to getting more memoir material was feeling vaguely let down that Springsteen was offering more self-reflection amid collective crisis. Butas he told Rolling Stone in September, the fact is that a bundle of topical anti-Trump songs from him would be “the most boring album in the world.” It’s always been a flub for part of his audience, the music press, and at times Springsteen himself, to regard him as a singer of protest songs. He’s hit that mark a couple of times—most of all with “

American Skin (41 Shots),” a song about the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo that’s continued echoing in this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. But he’s not at his best when he tries to bear the mantle of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and early Dylan. Springsteen’s most resonant political material comes not through noble rhetoric but via his personal interest in life stories, whether his own or people he’s known or characters who come to him, within his carefully guarded class solidarity. And as he also told Rolling Stone, his instinctive populism has been put to the test in the Trump era: “I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.”

So not making the predictable political album was, I think, the other clever decision Springsteen made withLetter to You.However (aside from one sidelong reference in “House of a Thousand Guitars”), he did reach back to an unrecorded song from the pre-Trump years to offer “one that stood in for the album I didn’t make.” That is “Rainmaker,” a song about demagoguery but more vitally about what makes people crave a demagogue, about those neighbors it’s hard to keep faith in. He sings, “Rainmaker, a little faith for hire/ Rainmaker, the house is on fire/ Rainmaker, take evеrything you have/ Sometimes folks need to bеlieve in something so bad, so bad, so bad/ They’ll hire a rainmaker.” It reminded me of what I read this week in

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an essay by retired union worker and sometime music writer Tom Smucker:Politics that propose a too-small solution to a too-big problem and call it realistic, make the whole idea of realistic sound suspicious. Gaslighting working people about jobs lost from de-industrialization can push folks looking for an explanation towards the darker corners of our national mythology. If it’s true that your good job is never coming back, why not believe a lie?

Read more: Slate »

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