Since Bruce Springsteen last released an album with the E Street Band—High Hopes, 2014’s collection of re-recorded outtakes and covers—he’s spent a lot of time thinking about his past. He followed his 2016 memoir Born to Run the next year with a one-man Broadway show in which he reimagined his songs as part of an intimate narrative about his own life and career. And while his 20th LP was recorded completely live with the band in a four-day sprint—for the first time since 1984’s Born in the USA—the songs themselves bear the deliberation and weight of an artist who knows he’s running out of time to do things like this. “The impetus for a lot of the material was the loss of my good friend George Theiss,” Springsteen tells Apple Music. “When he passed away, it left me as the only remaining living member of the first band that I had, which was a very strange thought, and it gave rise to most of the material. There’s aging and loss of people as time goes by, and that’s a part of what the record is. And then at the same time, you’re sort of celebrating the fact that the band goes on and we carry their spirits with us.”
That combination of wistfulness and joy—propelled by the full force of an E Street Band that’s been playing together in some form for nearly 50 years, minus two departed founding members, Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici—drives “Last Man Standing” and “Ghosts” most explicitly, but imbues the entire project. Though this may have been recorded live and fast, nothing sounds ragged or rambunctious; the efficiency owes to the shorthand of a unit that knows each other’s moves before they make them. While most of the songs were written recently, “Song for Orphans,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Janey Needs a Shooter” date back to the early ’70s, only adding to the feeling of loose ends being tied. And it’s not lost on Springsteen after this long period of reflection that this album fits into a larger story that he’s been telling for most of his life. “If you wanted to find a body of work that expressed what it was like to be an American, say from 1970 to now, in the post-industrial period of the United States—I’d be a place you could go and get some information on that,” he says. “And so in that sense, I always try to speak to my times in the way that I best could.” Here he digs deeper into just a few of the highlights from Letter to You.
One Minute You’re Here “It’s unusual to start a record with its quietest song. The record really starts with ‘Letter to You,’ but there’s this little preface that lets you know what the record is going to encompass. The record starts with ‘One Minute You’re Here’ and then ends with ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ which are both songs about mortality and death. It was just sort of a little tip of the hat to where the record was going to go and a little slightly connected to [2019’s] Western Stars. It was a little transitional piece of music.”
Last Man Standing “That particular song was directly due to George’s passing and me finding out that out of that group of people, I’m kind of here on my own, honoring the guys that I learned my craft with between the ages of 14 and 17 or 18. Those were some of the deepest learning years of my life—learning how to be onstage, learning how to write, learning how to front the band, learning how to put together a show, learning how to play for all different kinds of audiences at fireman’s fairs, at union halls, at CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] dances, and just really honing your craft.”
Janey Needs a Shooter and If I Was the Priest and Song for Orphans “We were working on a lot of stuff that I have in the vault to put out again at some time, and I went through almost a whole record of pre-Greetings From Asbury Park music that was all acoustic, and these songs were inside them. The guys came in and I said, ‘Okay. Today we’re going to record songs that are 50 years old, and we’re going to see what happens.’ The modern band playing those ideas that I had as a 22-year-old—and for some reason it just fit on the record, because the record skips through time. It starts with me thinking about when I was 14 and 15, and then it moves into the present. So those songs added a little touchstone for that certain period of time. I went back and I found a voice that really fit them, and they’re a nice addition to the record.”
House of a Thousand Guitars “Every piece of music has its demands—what tone in my voice is going to feel right for this particular piece of music—and you try to meet it in the middle. That’s one of my favorite songs on the record; I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s at the center of the record and it speaks to this world that the band and I have attempted to create with its values, its ideas, its codes, since we started. And it collects all of that into one piece of music, into this imaginary house of a thousand guitars.”
The Power of Prayer “I grew up Catholic, and that was enough to turn me off from religion forever. And I realized as I grew older that you can run away from your religion, but you can’t really run away from your faith. And so I carried a lot of the language with me, which I use and write with quite often—’Promised Land’ or ‘House of a Thousand Guitars’ and ‘The Power of Prayer’ on this record. Those little three-minute records and the 180-second character studies that came through pop music were like these little meditations and little prayers for me. And that’s what I turned them into. And my faith came in and filled those songs, and gave them a spiritual dimension. It’s an essential part of your life.”
I’ll See You in My Dreams “I remember a lot of my dreams and I always have. But that song was basically about those that pass away don’t ever really leave us. They visit me in my dreams several times a year. Clarence will come up a couple times in a year. Or I’ll see Danny. They just show up in very absurd, sometimes in abstract ways in the middle of strange stories. But they’re there, and it’s actually a lovely thing to revisit with them in that way. The pain slips away, the love remains, and they live in that love and walk alongside you and your ancestors and your life companions as a part of your spirit. So the song is basically about that: ‘Hey. I’m not going to see you at the next session, but I’ll see you in my dreams.’”