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The Boss, in his 70s, takes a cathartic look at life

Bruce Springsteen, 71, releases his 20th studio album. It’s a heartland rocker’s reflection on life, death, and the past

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band during the 2009 Super Bowl in Florida. Getty Images

In an epic 236-night run between 2017-18, Bruce Springsteen performed a one-man show, Springsteen On Broadway, at New York City’s famous Walter Kerr Theatre (seating capacity just under 1,000). The intense and intimate show, based partly on Springsteen’s autobiography, Born To Run, published in 2016 and named after his commercially successful 1975 album, was later streamed on Netflix. It can still be watched there.

In Springsteen On Broadway, which ran for nearly 3 hours in its final shows, the singer-songwriter pairs his songs with vignettes and stories about his life. Some of the most poignant moments in the show are about his own struggles with depression, and about his life-long conflicts (that were never quite sorted out) with his father. The Broadway show, which saw every performance sold out, was in line with the way Springsteen, now 71, has performed at live concerts over the years, often narrating episodes from his life, growing up in New Jersey and launching a career in the early 1970s.

“The Boss”, as Springsteen has been nicknamed by fans whose numbers run into millions around the world, has had a storied career. Besides his live performances, Springsteen has 20 studio albums to his credit—from 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. to Letter To You, released late last month. In between, his albums saw massive commercial success. Born To Run was one, of course, as was 1984’s Born In The U.S.A., with its iconic cover portraying Springsteen from the back, clad in a white T-shirt and faded jeans, a baseball cap tucked into a back pocket, and against a background depicting the red and white stripes of the American flag.

Born In The U.S.A. was the album that launched Springsteen’s mainstream career, in the US and globally. It was an album that gave Springsteen’s brand of heartland roots rock, which dealt with the lives and travails of the American blue-collar class, a much larger audience, pitchforking him to rock stardom.

But although “heartland rock” is often used to describe Springsteen’s songs, it could be a very narrow way of viewing them. Springsteen’s lyrics go way beyond, touching emotions and souls regardless of class and background. He has been a prolific musician. His 20 studio albums may be considerably fewer than, say, another prolific star, Bob Dylan—who at 79 has 39 studio albums, including this summer’s Rough And Rowdy Ways—but his rigorous, high-energy and long-lasting live shows and tours are a huge draw. Springsteen has been touring or performing live, nearly continuously, since 1974.

In 2019, he released Western Stars, an American West-themed album accompanied by a film with most of the songs from the album as its soundtrack. Western Stars was a cinematic, sad and elegiac album, critically acclaimed but not exactly what a mainstream audience would lap up.

In contrast, Letter To You, his latest, is a blast. Part of it is due to the way Springsteen recorded the album. After six years, he got his famous E Street Band to play with him. That band comprises guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, drummer Max Weinberg, bass player Garry Tallent and keyboardist Roy Bittan.

He wrote and performed the songs in solo acoustic versions and shared them with the band, which joined him in his studio for the recordings, playing them as they would live .

The germ of the album is the song Last Man Standing, which Springsteen wrote last year in memory of George Theiss, his friend and leader of The Castiles, the New Jersey band that Springsteen first played in. Reflecting on the music and the clubs they played in as well as all the friends who have passed on, Springsteen sings: Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd/ I’m the last man standing now. As it happens, Theiss, an older musician, had invited Springsteen into his band—but the latter soon outshone his mentor and eventually left the band to start a solo career. Despite initial rifts, the two remained friends till Theiss died—and the song is the centre-point of Letter To You.

Last Man Standing led to Springsteen writing the rest of the songs on the album; it sets the theme for them, as nearly all of them look back at the past. Writing nine of the 12 songs (three were written decades ago but not recorded) in just nine days, Springsteen has called making the album “a cathartic” experience. It does seem like one, as listeners will easily sense.

Unsurprisingly, with Springsteen now a septuagenarian, reflections about death and life recur on Letter To You, yet the songs have a feel of the old straightforward and upbeat frill-free rock that The Boss’ best albums have always exuded. Springsteen’s most memorable albums have been with the E Street Band, a team whose members enjoy a chemistry honed by playing together for decades, and his latest album is like a throwback to their most glorious days—albeit in a more sombre manner.


THE LOUNGE LIST

Five tracks from ‘Letter To You’ to bookend your week

1. ‘Last Man Standing’

2. ‘One Minute You’re Here’

3. ‘Burnin’ Train’

4. ‘If I Was The Priest’

5. ‘The Power Of Prayer’


First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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