Reviews: New albums from Bruce Springsteen, Bob Mould, Sufjan Stevens and Flaming Lips

Letter to You

Bruce Springsteen

Sony Music

It starts out so gentle, so easy, so familiar. That pure Bruce voice. Sure, it’s a bit different than when he was twennysupumtin’, rallying ’round stories of the working guy and the small-town girl, but, still, it’s Bruce. Beloved, beleaguered Bruce.

The first song, One Minute You’re Here, gives you the same feeling as slipping into a favourite old cotton T-shirt, so warm, so comfy, so perfectly shaped to who you are, who you’ve been – in spite of its themes of death, or maybe because of it. That shirt’s your go-to when you’re cold, you’re hurt, you’re unsure. Which might be a lot of the time lately. ’Cause, well, you know why.

But just ’cause it’s comfy and you feel good doesn’t mean that T-shirt’s at its best. In fact, it’s not your best. You’ve got others you could put on, a little newer, with fewer holes in it, ones that look better wearing out in public, shinier.

Except. You don’t want to. You don’t want to leave the comfort of this sound. The E-Street(ish) sound. Haven’t you worn this T-shirt through a s-storm? Or many. Actually, many s-storms.

So, go ahead, put it on. Hear it? Yes, that sax is pretending to burn out of control. Uh huh, the piano comes in like clarity, as if something bigger than us is about to be delivered. Except. It isn’t. Not like it could be, not even like it was as recently as on Western Stars, where Mr. Bruce at least took us on a journey we could see in our souls even as we listened with our ears.

Sure, this comfy, old friend of a T-shirt feels really good when you put it on and hang around your house. But, really, you wouldn’t want to wear it too long, ’cause like so many old, over-worn shirts, it’s a bit of a stinker. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s all live another 30 years and talk about which of Brucie’s albums we’re still spinnin’ and diggin’ then.

— Mary-Lynn Wardle

Blue Hearts

Bob Mould


Surely, no one expected Bob Mould to remain cheerful. The punk-rock legend follows 2019’s high-spirited and hook-filled Sunshine Rock with its brutal emotional antithesis. Blue Hearts is a turbulent record for turbulent times, arriving just before a possible Trump re-election, with climate catastrophe seemingly inevitable, democracy retreating, and disinformation on the rise. 

The album begins with the image of the West Coast “covered in ash and flames” on the acoustic Heart on the Sleeve then gets bleaker, louder and faster over the next 13 tracks — only one that extends past three minutes. 

Mould and longtime bandmates Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster are firmly in Husker Du/Beaster-era Sugar form; as always with Mould, even the most ferocious performances are leavened by melodies that can withstand land-speed-record velocity. But Mould is not reliving his youth. Throughout the record, he references his advancing age and imagines the world he’ll leave behind, imploring young people “don’t let them fuck this whole world up.” 

An angry record, for sure, but not without hope and manic pop thrills.

— David Veitch

The Ascension

Sufjan Stevens

Asthmatic Kitty Records

Pulsing, throbbing, pretty and promising this journey we’ve embarked upon with the latest album from dark-end-of-the-street American artist Sufjan Stevens.

Early he sets a moody, dreamy Depeche mode electro feel, that can, one minute, drop a quintessentially catchy pop song, such as the defiant Video Game, before building in the next, Lamentations, a castle in the cloudscapes, and then going all glowing and gloriously epic with the gorgeous Tell Me You Love Me that which suspends time and emotion for a full four minutes.

That, that is a welcome form of giving up and giving in. Words and phrases that could have seemed ominous, were easily and hopefully explained away by the positive sonic vibes,

From there, though, things get much darker, heavier, more hopeless with the dirge Die Happy, which repeats in a very Spiritualized, way, “I want to die happy” over and over again until it no longer seems like a wish but a weary plea echoing off the void and falling on the deaf ears of a universe that begat 2020.

The doom and deep-seated dread of that track carries through to the sickbed Eels song Ativan, which offers no relief, no comedown, just the opportunity to dip further into the darkness, before the remainder of the album conjures something, musically and emotionally, like Peter Gabriel and Ezra Koenig and Andrew McCluskey and Ideal Copy-era Colin Newman discussing their individual existential crises.

Or, as the 12-a-half-minute jaw dropper and skull scraping closer would have you wonder, America’s existential crisis? Maybe our collective existential crisis as humans. Or something.

Hopeless? Helpful? The journey — beautiful, exhausting, exhilarating, defeated, dizzying — promises to land you somewhere in between.

— Mike Bell

American Head

The Flaming Lips

Warner Records

“My younger self, I miss you,” Wayne Coyne sings on Assassins of Youth, something of a Logical Song for 2020 and perhaps a clue to the inspiration behind American Head. 

The Flaming Lips’ 16th album could be seen as a requiem for a youth spent in the shadow of the Vietnam War and a growing(ly dangerous) drug culture, or as an alternate version of Dazed and Confused drawn from the band’s memories of growing up in Oklahoma. 

The spectre of war and death looms large (“Flower head/Now all your friends are dead”) and those “lucky” enough to watch the carnage from afar seek escape through mind-altering substances which, in the end, prove deadly in their own way (“We’re so high that we forget that we’re alive/As we destroy our brains till we believe we’re dead”). But American Head is far from a downer, as these tales are soundtracked to music that’s sadly beautiful and stealthily uplifting in a way that recalls the sumptuous psychedelia of 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. 

Although the songs may be drawn from decades-old memories, American Head captures a mood of societal distress and helplessness that chimes with current times.

— David Veitch