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From Springsteen To Stevie Wonder, Veteran Musicians Capture The Moment


This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has noticed an uptick in the number of veteran music acts releasing new music right now. From Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder, from The Pretenders to Paul McCartney, musicians approaching 70 and beyond seem to be feeling freshly inspired. Ken has picked three songs that typify this new outpouring and has some ideas about why these new songs sound so good.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The times we're currently living through, from the pandemic to social protests, have stirred many veteran artists to make music for a variety of reasons - some because they have something to say about the moment, and others because they're going a little stir crazy.

Bruce Springsteen's new album "Letter To You" sounds to me like a little bit of both. It features the return of The E Street Band. And while it's certainly not one of Springsteen's best albums, it is humble and likeable. Its most interesting music focuses on the life of a friend of his who died not long ago. It's this departed spirit and others that haunt one of the better songs on the album called "Ghosts."


BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I hear the sound of your guitar coming from the mystic far. Stone and the gravel in your voice come in my dreams, and I rejoice. It's your ghost moving through the night. Your spirit filled with light. I need, need you by my side, your love. And I'm alive. I can feel the blood shiver in my bones. I'm alive. And I'm out here on my own. I'm alive. And I'm coming home.

TUCKER: Social protest has taken many pop music forms in recent months. At one end of the spectrum of old pro musicians, there's Van Morrison, who at age 75 has decided to test his audience's goodwill by releasing a series of anti-lockdown protest songs.

Meanwhile, Stevie Wonder, age 70, has engaged with calls for racial equality inspired by the death of George Floyd to insist, as the title of his new single has it, you "Can't Put It In The Hands Of Fate." On this song, Wonder locks into the rhythm of go-go music, the great Washington, D.C., funk subgenre. And after inviting a slew of rappers, including Busta Rhymes, to say their piece, offers his own hard-headed but highly musical opinion.


STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) You say you're sick and tired of us protesting. I say, not time enough to make a change. You say just to hold on. I say, no way 'cause we can't put it in the hands of fate - can't put it in the hands of fate now, baby. You say that you believe that all lives matter. I say, honestly, I don't believe you do. You say, all things in time. I say, that's why I'm not going to put it in the hands of fate.

TUCKER: May I be honest with you? There's a song I should have noticed when it was first released earlier this year. That would be "Didn't Want To Be This Lonely" from The Pretenders and their album "Hate For Sale," which came out in July. Buried as the second-to-the-last song on the album, which itself didn't make so much as a ripple in America, "Lonely" is a fantastic piece of music. Chrissie Hynde pulls off a neat trick. She's very decisive about being ambivalent, about kicking a guy to the curb, while behind her The Pretenders pound out a Bo Diddley beat.

I'm declaring this retroactively the song of the summer, during a time when the seasons seem to have lost their meaning.


THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) Well, I didn't want to be this lonely, though losing you was a relief, from a life with one man only, devoid of morals or belief. But I didn't want to be this lonely. No, I didn't want to be this lonely. No, I didn't want to be this lonely. No, I didn't want to be this lonely.

TUCKER: The cascade of new music from old acts is ceaseless right now. Folks ranging from Willie Nelson to Paul McCartney are turning out new collections. My old favorite, Loudon Wainwright, who I am shocked to say is 74, has momentarily abandoned his own songwriting to sing from the Great American Songbook - complete with big-band arrangements, for heaven's sake - on his new collection titled "I'd Rather Lead A Band." These are strange times, and sometimes it's what the kids call the olds who produce the best strange-times music.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed new songs by Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and The Pretenders.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jerald Walker. His new collection of personal essays "How To Make A Slave" takes its title from Frederick Douglass' famous line, you have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. Walker is also the author of the memoirs "Street Shadows: A Memoir Of Race, Rebellion, And Redemption" and "The World In Flames: A Black Boyhood In A White Supremacist Doomsday Cult." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help today from Al Banks (ph). Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) You'll find somebody else to suffer and get to know your selfish ways. And I'll feel pity for the next one when you start to ruin her days. But I didn't want to be this lonely. No, I didn't want to be this lonely. No, I didn't want to be this lonely. No, I didn't want to be this lonely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.