Thursday, 31 December 2020

My Top Twenty of 2020: #1


Regular readers of this blog will probably find my choice for Album of the Year so, so predictable. Particularly anyone who remembers what 2019's Album of the Year was round these parts.

However, a few notes in my defence...

Prior to 2019, the last time I voted a Springsteen album as the best thing I'd heard all year was in 1987, with Tunnel of Love.

Prior to Western Stars, the last Springsteen studio album, 2014's hodge-podge contract-filler High Hopes, barely deserved a mention in my year end countdown.

And prior to that, there were any number of albums released with the resurrected E Street Band that I liked well enough (some more than others), but as much as they might have been good late-stage Bruce albums, they didn't really feel like good band albums. Ironically, the last great E Street Band album then, the last one that truly feels and sounds like the E Street Band... was Born In The USA

36 years ago. 

I couldn't quite put my finger on why this album sounded like a proper E Street record again after such a long time... until I read an interview with Steve Van Zandt in which he explained that unlike all the other records he's worked on with Bruce this century, this is the only one in which the band have contributed as much as they did in the 70s and 80s. All the other albums Bruce has made with them since their reunion, he's come to the room with finished songs and a producer, looking for a very specific sound, and the band have pretty much acted as session musicians to deliver his vision. This record though was recorded like the classic E Street albums of the 70s and 80s. Bruce just brought the songs - acoustic guitar and lyrics. Then he let the band do their thing. And it shows...

Letter To You sounds like a Greatest Hits set from an alternate reality. Most of the tracks would fit comfortably on the old classic albums, without any concessions for a contemporary sound. The opener, One Minute You're Here, wouldn't have been out of place on Tunnel Of Love, with maybe a touch of The Rising

Then comes the title track, which I was rather underwhelmed with on its own... yet hearing it in the context of the album as a whole (particularly coming off the back of the slow, acoustic opener) really kicks it up a gear. 

Three of the songs featured here were actually written prior to Bruce's debut album back in 1973, but have never been recorded by him. Of these, If I Was The Priest, is the one that really could have fallen of the edge of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. - like much of that disc, it owes a huge debt to Dylan.

Meanwhile, Janey Needs A Shooter is an interesting one for Warren Zevon fans. A track Zevon heard Bruce playing live back in the day, before loosely adapting it as Jeannie Needs A Shooter on the album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. They're very different songs when played back to back, yet they do match up.  

The Power of Prayer evokes the chord sequences from Born To Run in a song that's as open to misinterpretation as Born In The USA. On the surface, it seems Bruce is getting in touch with his spiritual side (there's a subtext of growing old and facing up to one's mortality than runs throughout the record). A closer listen, however, reveals a deeper meaning - Bruce's prayer is live music, and this album rewards the listener with the next best thing to seeing the E Street Band playing live. 

Rainmaker takes a sly dig at Trump, but that's the only political song on here (despite his activism in the run up to the US election, Bruce decided it would be boring to write a whole album attacking idiot politicians... besides, he's already done that on Wrecking Ball). 

Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white
Says night’s day and day’s night
Says close your eyes and go to sleep now
I’m in a burnin’ field unloadin’ buckshot into low clouds

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker

Two tunes here really kick this album up into the higher echelons. House Of A Thousand Guitars starts (rather ironically) with a classic Roy Bittan piano solo before launching into the kind of bombastic lyrical mythologising only Bruce could get away with... with maybe a sly reminder of how much Jim Steinman owes his career to The Boss.

Here the bitter and the bored
Wake in search of the lost chord
That'll band us together for as long as there's stars
Yeah in the house of a thousand guitars

And then comes Ghosts, which is basically Thunder Road or Born To Run grown old, no longer burning to get out of this town, but looking back on a lifetime of running, glorying in the joy of still being alive. It's a love song from a 70 year old man to his 20-something self, full of gratitude and respect. And best of all, it tears the roof off like no Springsteen song has in decades...

I hear the sound of your guitar
Coming in from the mystic far
The stone and the gravel in your voice
Come in my dreams and I rejoice

It's your ghost moving through the night
Spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I'm 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

This is a very different record to last year's Western Stars, in which Bruce turned down the path not taken and gave Jimmy Webb a run for his money. By contrast, Letter To You sounds like exactly what you'd expect from a Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band album... just not one we've heard for a long, long time.



  1. Brilliant post Rol. I got this album as well but didn't dive deeper in it yet. Now I know what to do during the next days. Have a good start into 2021 and stay safe.

  2. As Walter said I will now look at this album in a new light and listen with a keener ear.
    Happy New Year to you and yours Rol.
    Things can only get better!

  3. I'm sold. Haven't got this yet, but it's just crept up the list and is going in the basket very soon.
    Honestly, that is the most convincing review I've read of the album.

  4. Yes, I admit this crossed my mind as your No. 1, but there is no need to feel defensive. Having said that, what a strong case you’ve given in your defense. Well done. Happy New Year, Rol.

  5. I'm no Springsteen fan I'm afraid but I must say he's looking really good, especially in that flying jacket! (How shallow of me.)
    Here's to better days for all in 2021. Happy New Year!

  6. Oh dear - I was just going to say the same as C, he has aged well but he has never been a slave to fashion but just concentrated on the music. Sounds as if he’s right back on form.


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