Envy Bruce Springsteen. He not only releases two of the definitive albums of the 1970s (Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town), but even found time to fire off top forty hits for other artists between records (“Fire,” “Because the Night”). As it turns out, he also had upwards of forty unreleased songs from the same era sitting around in the vaults waiting for their day in the sun.
A handful of those forty-plus vault tunes made it out on the four-CD Tracks compilation in 1998, and now another twenty-two songs will see release on The Promise: The Lost Sessions from Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It’s a two-disc collection that also factors as a major component of an epic boxed set celebrating the release and recording of the Darkness record. That box features a documentary, tons of live and studio footage, and the remastered Darkness album itself, alongside these twenty-two songs.
It’s enough to make a Brucehead drool with anticipation, sure, but should an average fan of the Boss and his music care?
Even if you’re one of those folks with an old beat-up copy of Born to Run in your CD rack and little else from Springsteen, The Promise is a pretty amazing compilation. It takes the listener down any number of potential avenues where Springsteen’s music could have gone in the period between his great romantic opus to pop potential, Born to Run, and his stark exploration of the end of that road, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Springsteen has referred to Darkness as his “samurai record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble.” On Darkness, he learned about economy–in his songwriting, in his arrangements, in the themes he’d tackle on each record. He mentions in the liner notes that he was visiting New York City record stores to get the latest UK punk singles as they were released; in a sense, Darkness is Springsteen’s “punk” record, his own way of confronting the realities of American life for the first time in a focused, concrete effort. He retains his own sound, but discards any of the flourishes that might provide release for the listener. He knows what he wants to say and he says it unflinchingly.
The outtakes on The Promise chronicle that journey from the epic bombast of Born to Run to the taut power of Darkness. Hearing these tunes, you can imagine the process Springsteen went through to fully explore his Born to Run sound and his many influences as a songwriter before settling on the sparse Darkness approach. You hear fragments of ideas that would emerge fully formed on Darkness; “It’s a Shame” uses the central guitar lick from “Prove It All Night,” while “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” is a new set of lyrics to the melody of “Factory,” and “Candy’s Boy” is a very early draft of what would become “Candy’s Room.” It’s a tasty package, full of uptempo soul (“Ain’t Good Enough For You”), effortless Spectoresque pastiche (“Gotta Get That Feeling”) and pop balladry worthy of Elvis Presley (“The Brokenhearted”). While you can hear where Springsteen left off on Born to Run and where he’d end up on Darkness, it’s a fun ride between the two sounds, full of great songwriting and performances from the young and hungry E Street Band.
For my money, hearing these songs actually increased my appreciation of Darkness. There’s good tunes here, but is there a theme Springsteen was dying to communicate? Was there a unity of sound and purpose to be teased out of these explorations?
I don’t hear one. That doesn’t diminish the value of The Promise as a glimpse straight into the heart of Springsteen’s creative process (although a flawed glimpse–more on that shortly). It just means that, rather than a lost chapter from an amazing career, the collection represents the music Springsteen needed to expel from his system before he could confront the more potent truths and fierce music he would ultimately release in 1978. It’s exciting stuff, full of fun and romance and Spectorian bombast–several songs are already in heavy rotation on the ol’ iPod. But it’s nowhere near as essential as what Darkness would become. It’s fun to hear these alternate paths but I’m glad Springsteen found his way onto the road less taken eventually.
If you’ve read this far and you’re not a major Springsteen fan, or you’re not interested in watching the slow descent of a major Springsteen fan into near-incoherent babbling, then you may well want to depart. I’m a Springsteen obsessive so the rest of this may veer down a few rabbit holes. It also may be gibberish to those who are not also obsessives.
But I think it has to be said: While it stands perfectly fine on its own as a collection of songs, The Promise is an odd construct built from 1978 recordings and 2010 overdubs that doesn’t quite fit into either year. Based on the information present today, it’s tempting to regard the collection as a bit of revisionist history and perfectionism run rampant.
In the collection’s liner notes, Springsteen writes that these songs “perhaps could have/should have been released after Born To Run and before the collection of songs that Darkness on the Edge of Town became.” He’s reiterated that point in several interviews surrounding the release, as has his manager and chief creative aide, Jon Landau. I disagree, but that’s beside the point.
What it suggests is that Springsteen and his team want to put forward this collection of songs, in 2010, as an accurate representation of what happened in the studio between 1977 and 1978. That’s not the case. In fact, you need only venture two songs into the compilation to hear a song whose lead vocal was quite obviously recorded not in the middle of a long late-seventies night, but sometime earlier this year.
I think there’s some small dishonesty there. Obviously the Boss can do whatever he wants with his music, and the audience will either embrace it or reject it. But to claim this is some missing link of his most fertile and acclaimed period, while at the same time mumbling out of the side of his mouth that there were some more recent “enhancements” to the tracks, isn’t quite playing fair.
It’s not that I don’t want to hear Springsteen circa 2010 putting out completed versions of songs that Springsteen circa 1978 left to gather dust in a vault. It’s that I’d rather hear what Springsteen and his band actually accomplished in those years as an accurate representation of the artist, his music, and his process. Why not level with the listener and at least asterisk these tracks, or even separate them onto their own disc–disc 1 as 1978 tracks with minor additions/revisions, disc 2 with more overt 78/10 hybrid tracks.
There’s at least one song on here where Springsteen clearly drops a vocal overdub from 2010 in the middle of a 1978 vocal take. It’s jarring enough to remove me from the music and start my mind rattling. I don’t know if the casual fan will notice or care. I’m sure there are some diehards who definitely don’t care. They just want the music. I want it too.
In the end, it’s probably insignificant. There’s amazing, revelatory stuff on The Promise. But is there another great Springsteen record here? Perhaps. We’ll never know because as much as Springsteen might want to, you don’t get to release your follow-up to a 1975 album in 2010.