“I’m in the middle of a 45 year conversation with these men and women I’m surrounded by,” Bruce Springsteen says in “Letter to You,” the documentary created in conjunction with the album of the same name. Springsteen’s newest album reflects on the past with the honest wisdom of a man who has loved and lost, and found love again — this time for keeps. Springsteen replaces the cynical future painted in his popular 1984 album “Born in the USA” with a touching and vulnerable gratitude in “Letter to You.”
Springsteen’s new record-breaking album, released Oct. 23, begins in The Boss’ characteristic fashion, with a melancholy cry to a faithless lover with a desperate chorus, sung in a near-whisper —“One minute you’re here, next minute you’re gone.” But unlike the hopelessness of the love songs on “Born in the USA” — “I’m on Fire,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” or “Cover Me”—his cries aren’t hopeless. He’s “so alone,” but he’s “coming home.” The last lines of the opening song show a man completely vulnerable, at the end of himself, singing, “On the muddy banks, I lay my body down, this body down.”
But even as “One Minute You’re Here,” stands alone against the rest of the album, it sets the tone for the rest of “Letter to You.” It’s as if Springsteen is describing who he once was, only to remind us of how things have really turned out. A ray of hope appears in the album’s title track— “Letter to You”. With a triumphant burst of music and with Springsteen back to his “Born to Run” style shout, he, “tried to summon all that my heart finds true, and send it all in my letter to you.”
After a life of reckless heartbreak, the writer of the letter takes, “Things I found out through hard times and good,” and writes them all out, “in ink and blood.” In the film, Springsteen sings these words surrounded by his loving wife of 30 years, members of his beloved E Street Band, and his cousin, who taught him his first chords on the guitar.
“Born in the USA,” released 36 years earlier, tells a different story. An opening denouncement of American warmongering is followed by an impersonal but desperate cry for a lover who will “come on in and cover me,” from, “the rain, the driving snow,” outside. Then, “driving out of Darlington County,” he searches for meaning in the freedom of rock and roll and strange women, as his friend Wayne is, “handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.” Most of the rest of “Born in the USA” sings the same themes, accented by melancholy guitar riffs and Bruce’s signature growly, crooning, cynicism, and the occasional love song— “I’m on Fire” and “I’m Goin’ Down” — all in the midst of a war that, “ain’t ours anymore to win.”
The famous last three songs in the album show what Bruce, and many of his generation, expected for their future. “Glory Days,” is what The Boss foresees for the melancholy subjects of his music, while “Dancing in the Dark” is what he hopes they can enjoy for the time being. “My Hometown,” gets personal. It’s about who he loves, and the unstoppable economic and political forces destroying the backdrop of his childhood.
In May 1985, almost a year after the release of “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen married model Julianne Phillips. The marriage ended in divorce less than five years later, shortly after which Springsteen began dating E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, his future wife and mother of his three children. But in 1984, Springsteen sings, “Glory days, well they’ll pass you by,” in the song’s music video. The repeated chorus culminates in a harmonizing between Bruce and Patti, then merely bandmates, as they sing, “Glory days, they’ll pass you by, in the wink of a young girl’s eye.” In “Letter to You,” the girl he has found isn’t gone with a wink. In fact, as he sings in “Power of Prayer”, “it’s closing time,” and, “she’s standing there.” Of course, she always was.
“Born in the U.S.A.”, ironically misunderstood as a patriotic anthem, opens the album with a cynical picture of a country that doesn’t live up to the ideals it espouses. It ends with a picture of its victims — his hometown, his father, the men dreaming of their glory days, and the young people just “Dancing in the Dark.”
But in “Letter to You,” Bruce looks back on a life well lived, surrounded by family and friends, while fondly remembering those who have passed. Rather than the purposeless young man of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the Springsteen of “Letter to You” is comfortable, happy, and secure.
The documentary itself was a joy to watch. In the midst of a pandemic that keeps families apart and friends separate, the sight of warm, time-tested friendship manifested in close, comfortable quarters was refreshing to see. No masks. No distancing that is decidedly un-social. No disposable cups and latex gloves. Just friends making music.
For Bruce, and for the characters in his songs, this is the dream, and it’s a dream many didn’t know they could realize. Springsteen is in his hometown, with the woman he loves, the friends he respects, and the music he loves to make. But, after all, that’s the “power of prayer.”
In what could almost be read as a fatherly criticism of the young Springsteen in “Born in the U.S.A.,” the rock legend sings in “Power of Prayer:” “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/Baby, it’s just the power of prayer/Darling, it’s just the power of prayer.”
As he looks back on his glory days, perhaps this time, The Boss really is proud to be born in the U.S.A.