Tim Van Schmidt
The poet Dylan Thomas wrote: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Is America’s rock poet, Bruce Springsteen, going “gentle into that good night”? I think not based on his 2020 album release, “Letter to You.”
In fact, dust off your air guitar before you play this one because it is just full of huge, chunky power chords underpinning an otherwise mighty wall of sound, all with “The Boss” wailing on top.
By now, a lot of Springsteen’s sound is patented and even the cadence of his writing is very familiar. Springsteen could pretty much coast on his trademark — and super successful — rock and soul music.
But not so on “Letter to You” — Springsteen continues to challenge himself and the listener, first to let that mighty wall of sound take over, and second to listen to what he’s got to say. And he’s got a lot to say.
Maybe that’s why it’s called “Letter to You.” Ultimately it’s the writing that matters.
The sound here echoes Springsteen’s live sound — it’s stadium-sized — and these are going to be great stage tunes once the big shows return. But you must dig underneath this sound to get something further — lyrics that reveal emotions, dreams, and experience with the eye of a poet.
One of my favorite tunes on “Letter to You” is the first one, “One Minute You’re Here,” and partially because it is the most personal and subdued track on the album. The music doesn’t overpower the words.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great rockers here — all served up with blistering guitar licks, rich keyboard parts, and deep, rolling drums.
“House of a Thousand Guitars” is one that resonates as an anthem to big rock and roll and the big hopes that go with it. Springsteen is looking for that lost chord “that’ll band us together for as long as there’s stars.”
I’ve seen him do that time and time again on stage. The last time in Denver, the arena lights switched on about two-thirds of the way through the show and stayed on for the rest of the night. I saw thousands of people banded together in the name of rock and roll.
Springsteen’s fans are there with him when he says “We’ll rise together til we fire the spark, That’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.”
Springsteen is big, but part of his appeal is that he also is a guy who hasn’t forgotten about the humble roots he came from. And he hasn’t forgotten his fans.
Besides dominating the stage with the swagger of a rock and roll king, the most impressive thing I’ve seen a major artist like Springsteen do is to meet and greet a thousand fans personally.
The occasion was the 2016 release of Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run,” and he did a very limited tour of bookstores that included a Denver stop at the Tattered Cover. I scored a ticket for my wife, who comes from the Jersey Shore, and I managed a press pass.
What I saw was a man stepping forward to shake the hand of each and every person in line and pose for a quick picture. Long after I was booted out from the press area, Springsteen stayed on the job until everyone got in — and that line snaked down the street and around the block.
Since then Springsteen treated fans to a one-man show on Broadway — for more than a year — notching 236 performances. In 2019 he also released an album, “Western Stars.”
Just like the writing Springsteen does on “Letter to You,” he really doesn’t have to work so hard but he does — on record, on stage, and on the job with his fans.
I first saw Springsteen live on the Born to Run Tour in 1975 and I spent the next several weeks dramatically playing air guitar to the album. In “Letter to You,” everything that made Springsteen a rock and roll inspiration back then is all still there in 2020 on one particular track — “Ghosts.” Power chords, impassioned vocals, even a sing-along “la-la-la” refrain make this the album’s dynamic gem.
Springsteen is a mature artist, but by his recent output, it appears he isn’t done yet. Maybe this isn’t exactly “old age” or the “dying of the light” for him, but in any case, “Letter to You” is not going “gentle” in any way. Turn it up.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. See his slideshow “Clarence Clemons RIP 2011 Stone Pony” on his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”