The Boss's first collaboration with the full E Street Band in over 35 years is brought to life in this brilliantly spirited documentary
A faultless depiction of recent recording sessions mixed with archive footage and accompanied by a hoarse and wistful voiceover, Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is conceptually as much a teaser for his latest album as it is a documentary about The Boss himself. Of course, any kind of inquiry into an artist with as much philosophical heft as Springsteen is guaranteed to result in something transcendent. This one's no different.
But things don't start out quite so profoundly. First, Springsteen has to refamiliarize himself with the rhythms and vibrations of the E Street Band, the eight-strong setup who have provided the distinct sound to his work for decades – but with whom Bruce himself hasn’t collaborated at full strength since they made Born in the USA together 35 years ago.
That time jump is a good clue to the ages of the musicians, and since then they’ve learned to be straight with each other. Still, Springsteen isn't afraid to occasionally dance around the truth. Of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, ex-band members who died in 2008 and 2011, Springsteen says they’re “in absentia.” And he's prone to sentimentality, too, since the project is seemingly inspired by the recent deaths of George Theiss, rhythm guitar player for The Castiles – the first real band Springsteen ever played in. Thinking of George is what brings him to observe, “Music just flows. Sometimes.”
This is absolutely one of those times. Aside from being a brilliant behind-the-scenes documentary in its own right, Letter to You works as an entirely winning showcase for the fantastically affecting album of the same name – recorded at Springsteen's New Jersey home studio in just five days. Now in his grey years (the Boss turned 71 last month), his ever-raspier voice actually nourishes his iconic folk-rock sound, which still sounds as assertive as ever.
As far as the songs themselves go, “If I Was the Priest” is an undeniable highlight, although it is something of a cheat. Written in 1970 before his first studio album, Springsteen played the track for a Columbia Records producer and never released it – until now. Maybe its gripping opening lines – “There’s a light on yonder mountain/And it’s calling me to shine”- have since taken on a new, darker meaning better suited to Springsteen’s current mode of melancholy.
That’s certainly true of opening track “One Minute You’re Here,” to which the chorus answers, “Next minute you’re gone.” The album itself might well be the most reflective and personal album Springsteen has ever released. It’s certainly his most spiritual. The contrast of that opener with “If I Was the Priest,” a coming-of-age ballad about girls and fountains and working life, is immensely poignant. Springsteen might not look 71, but you’ll be hard pressed to hear Letter To You and not get the impression that he probably feels it.
Yet Bruce has never really been one to wallow – at least not without a big final chorus to voice his hopeful side. The album’s closer, the stadium-friendly “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is a stirring and splendid rallying cry to the ones we’ve lost. It’s not unrelated to what Springsteen tells the E Street Band when they wrap: “We’re taking this thing 'til we’re all in the box, boys.” It’s pretty clear from the recording of Letter to You that neither Springsteen, nor his band, want these sessions to end. The feeling’s mutual.
Bruce Springsteen's Letter to You is streaming on Apple TV+ from October 23.Where to watch