In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen writes about growing up in church and the lingering effects of his childhood faith:
It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained…As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save…but not to damn…enough of that (17).
If someone asked me to sum up Springsteen’s music, I’d deliver the above confession. It doesn’t really matter what “The Boss” sings about—small-town New Jersey, a woman named Rosalita, or the dissolution of the hardworking middle-class—he’s singing about faith. Or, to be more precise, the reconciliation of faith with the ebbs and flows of a lived-in, sandpaper life.
[S]ometimes the eternal is best explored through honestly exploring the finite, the little human moments, the beauty of life’s fleeting symphonies, that make us look up, even as life slows us down.Springsteen calls himself a “spiritual songwriter,” and it’s not difficult to figure out why. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that one can’t fully appreciate Springsteen’s music—especially the back half of his career—if they don’t understand Christianity.
These sacred tentacles reach their apex in Springsteen’s twentieth studio release, Letter to You, a propulsive, rock n’ rollercoaster of an album that could only be written by someone who spent the better part of five decades trotting beside the mysterious practices of the Catholic Church. The sound fills rooms, and Springsteen employs his working man lyricism to craft a set of tunes submerged in the earthly, saintly, and holy. The album’s title track itself frames the entire project as one long prayer—akin to a modern-day book of Psalms or a less cynical Ecclesiastes:
‘Neath a crowd of mongrel trees I pulled that bothersome thread
Got down on my knees, grabbed my pen and bowed my head
Tried to summon all that my heart finds true
And send it in my letter to you
“For me, from the beginning, pop was always a raucous meditation.” Springsteen says in Thom Zimney’s documentary on the making of the album. “We all have our own ways of praying. I restricted my prayers to three minutes and a 45-rpm record…If you get it right, it has the power of prayer.” In Springsteen’s work, music fails when it merely functions as entertainment. The great hits, those with staying power, succeed because of their honest reflections, petitions, and imprecatory laments about the weight of human existence. And, in that sense, Letter to You succeeds even Springsteen’s wildest expectations. The album makes me want to pray. It makes me want to type and journal and sing of life’s grim realities.
And life’s grim realities are certainly on display in Letter to You. “Last Man Standing” laments the death of George Theiss, former member of the Castiles—Springsteen’s teenage band. The opening half of the song feels like two friends carving their name in bark, only to see grief chop the entire tree. Quang Tri Province, Vietnam took the first of the Castiles in 1967; lung cancer came for Theiss in 2018. Springsteen is the last living member of the band. Is it better to outlive your friends or die while they hold your hands?
Death seems hard enough, but just as lamentable is the collective loss of memory highlighted in the track. Springsteen will never be able to shoot the breeze with anyone in the Castiles, grabbing one last drink “with just the ringing in your ears,” as the lyrics go. The gaps in his stories won’t be filled by another. The mind has a funny way of relying on loved ones to remember the past.
The circumstances surrounding the album’s creation also buttress its themes of loss and grief. At one point in Zimy’s documentary, Springsteen and the E Street Band gather for a final toast. They raise their glasses to the members of their group who have passed on—Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons and Danny Federici. For Springsteen fans, Letter to You feels like a celebration. Not since 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., have Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded a studio album together. The scene also carries a tinge of melancholy. Filmed in rich monochrome, the members have all visibly aged. Will they record together again? One day, all of them will be gone, save one. The stories won’t nearly be as good.
But just as mortality shakes its angry fist in the air, hope does, too. Springsteen has said he doesn’t know what happens after death, but his art won’t let him live so ambiguously. Anchoring the album, “Ghosts” is a blast of a song, which sees the dead as saints of sorts—gone but still very much alive. Letter to You’s closer, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” similarly portrays the departed as both asleep and active (“I’ll see you in my dreams/Yeah, up around the river bend/For death is not the end”). Even the structure of the songs themselves yearn for a life after life. Letter to You frequently fades a track to null, only to kick it back up for another chorus. The tunes won’t let you leave. “One more go at it,” they seem to cry.
The album also features three songs written at the beginning of Springsteen’s career: “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans.” It’s a wonder we didn’t get a fresh recording of the trio earlier; no doubt they’d be Springsteen Canon by now. The tracks, which reflect the verbose lyrical style of Springsteen’s early twenties, almost feel metaphysical when sung by the now 71-year-old artist. We don’t just remember history; we hear it fraternizing, crooning with the past.
It also makes sense that trains (a much used Springsteen image) figure heavily across Letter to You. And they make for a good metaphor—a rattle you can feel in your vocal cords. Springsteen describes them as vehicles that shoot through the past, moving us forward at a relentless pace. We miss memories and people, but the destination intrigues us, too. What lies behind the curtain? Letter to You, for all its talk of humanity’s inevitable mortality, isn’t a pessimistic album. Not by a long shot. Memories warm and grieve us, but they also point to a destination.
These ideas mix and mash between artist and audience. For Springsteen fans, an early classic like “The Promised Land” will always remind us of driving down some patch of dirt, yelling to the world that we’re all grown up. I have my own memories. I’ll never forget the time I traveled through Rocky Mountain National Park with my now deceased father, shifting and swaying with the trees to “Darlington County.”
We raise our glasses in the air to toast, and music brings us back even if we’re the last witnesses alive. It also points us forward to a reunion of the past. Not the same past, but a brighter one. Springsteen seems keen on telling us this story. His recent flutter of biographical work (Springsteen on Broadway, Western Stars, and his book, Born to Run) reinforce this tricky balance between nostalgia and expectation. Gifts for fans in more ways than one.
Springsteen and I, we offer differing versions of God. But we can agree on one truth: sometimes the eternal is best explored through honestly exploring the finite, the little human moments, the beauty of life’s fleeting symphonies, that make us look up, even as life slows us down. Or, as Springsteen puts it in Letter to You:
They say that love of comes and goes
But darling what, what do they know
I’m reaching for heaven, we’ll make it there
Darling, it’s just the power of prayer