Springsteen's Promise Well Worth Keeping

Bruce_Springsteen_The_PromiseBruce Springsteen: The Promise (Columbia)

After breaking through with Born to Run in 1975, Bruce's change of managers left him mired in a lawsuit that prevented him from following up until 1978. But he wasn't sitting around twiddling his thumbs for three years. Nope, he was prolifically writing songs and recording them. This two-CD set, subtitled "The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town," has 22 of them. There's also a three-CD/three-DVD version that includes a remaster of Darkness on the Edge of Town, The Promise, and three DVDs of rehearsal, recording, and concert film, including a 2009 concert of Darkness and a complete 1978 Houston show. But kudos to Bruce for giving fans a cheaper way to get the previously unreleased tracks without having to re-buy Darkness.

There are two songs here that would appear on Darkness on the Edge of Town under the same or similar title, and the differences between the Promise and Darkness versions say a lot. Opening track "Racing in the Street" here has more chatty and effusive lyrics and a less desolate sound -- Dylanesque harmonica figures prominently at first, and later David Lindley adds a fiddle solo and comes back to reinforce the densely arranged final verse. As a result, it’s less obviously the desperate delusion of a man refusing to see that he can't outrun failure and the challenges of intimacy by driving fast. Instead, it sounds celebratory, like something from a world where victory was still possible -- like something from Born to Run.

"Candy's Boy" is a more ornate version of "Candy's Room." Like so much from this period, it has an arrangement -- especially a baion beat -- that looks back to the songwriters of the Brill Building and the uniquely New York melting-pot sound of the Drifters (first pop baion use on "There Goes My Baby") and other rock/R&B/pop hybrids that co-opted a bit of a Latin rhythm. Other baion songs on Promise: the horn-heavy "Gotta Get That Feeling," "One Way Street," and "The Brokenhearted"; the Spectoresque "Someday (We’ll Be Together)"; "The Little Things (My Baby Does)" (with some very effective flips into falsetto); and, in a bit of a variant, the darker and slower "Breakaway." Other stylistic looks backward -- beyond how often Bruce's singing evokes the majesty of Roy Orbison -- include the roiling tom-tom beat (referencing Buddy Holly-style production, as does the shimmering guitar sound) that underpins "Outside Looking In" and the party-ready Gary "US" Bonds sound-alike "Ain’t Good Enough for You." And naturally there are also the songs that stylistically look back to Born to Run, most notably "Wrong Side of the Street." The scruffy vocal at the beginning of "Save My Love" (a 1977 song recorded in 2010 -- the only time on here that he did that, though there was some sprucing up of other tracks) recalls Dylan before the second verse kicks in with full BTR power.

Getting back to "Candy’s Boy/Room," there are lyric differences as well: the pictures on Candy's wall are not yet "her heroes," but rather "her savior"; there's a whole verse that's a sweet reminiscence of the earlier days of their relationship; there's also almost nothing of Candy herself, and no present sexual passion. It's a cuddlier, less menacing, less complex take on the relationship with a hint that it might not be presently functioning but just an ex fantasizing about rekindling what used to be. Here, he's been superseded by "a man who takes care of her better than I do," whereas on Darkness "what she wants is me." The protagonist on The Promise is passive and already defeated in the underlying class battle; on Darkness he's aggressive and (for at least one night) seduces Candy with raw masculine power, thus besting his competitor in their dog-eat-dog world (on the other hand, Joe Posnanski, who's one of the best writers in the world, says "Candy's Room" is "about a boy who loves a beautiful prostitute," which may or may not conflict with my interpretation). These changes encapsulate the differences between the formative material on The Promise and the quantum leap that was Darkness.

Some other songs here are more ancestral versions of later songs, sufficiently different that their reappearances carried new titles. "The Promise" -- sort of a sequel to "Thunder Road" -- morphed into "Something in the Night." The music on "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" became "Factory." Some lyrics in "City of the Night" showed up a decade later in "All That Heaven Will Allow" (Tunnel of Love). The guitar and horn riffs on "It's a Shame" were also recycled.

Other familiar material includes several songs recorded by other artists. "Because the Night," a writing collaboration with Patti Smith that she recorded right away, sounds ghostly here, slower than Smith's version. (It's also the only track where a bit of the sharper guitar sound of Darkness peeks through at times.) "Fire," made famous by the Pointer Sisters, was actually written for Elvis Presley; Springsteen sent a demo (maybe the fairly bare-bones recording here?) to Elvis, but Elvis died shortly thereafter, perhaps depriving Bruce of the thrill of hearing Presley sing it eventually. "Talk to Me" is practically the same arrangement used by Southside Johnny, not surprising seeing as the same horn section is on both recordings. "Rendezvous" was given to Greg Kihn because Bruce had liked his cover of "For You."

Had the 22 recordings (an unlisted one, perhaps titled "The Way," is a hidden bonus track after the final song on Disc 2) on these two CDs, and the outtakes from the same period that were released on Tracks, been released between Born and Darkness as two albums, those not-to-be albums would have been more wistful and plush and rock-history-retrospective -- and less powerful -- than the triumphant return from hiatus that Darkness proved to be. The Promise lacks the spitting bitterness and snarling guitar heard on "Adam Raised a Cain." There's just not the grim focus that dominates Darkness and makes listening to it -- really listening, paying attention to the nearly nihilistic lyrics and throwing oneself into the stomach-churning rollercoaster ride that its production and arrangements put us through if we listen not nostalgically, but with fresh attention -- seem like an assault; like, despite the utterly different production style, the punk singles that Springsteen was buying at the time.

So, although some of the roots of Darkness are here, the stylistic break between this stuff and the lean, mean, dead-serious tone of Darknessmake it appropriate that it's available separately. And for as much as my comparisons with Darkness have favored it over the tracks here, and as derivative as I may have made much of The Promise sound, only one song, "Spanish Eyes," is too slight, generic, and non-descript to offer any value beyond being able to say you've finally heard it. If we had heard these songs back when they were recorded, without knowledge of Darkness, which is what might have happened if not for the lawsuit, many of them would have become revered. Ignoring the songs that were used, in whole or in part, on subsequent albums, and picking only from The Promise and not other material from the same period, one excellent LP could be constructed that could stand without embarrassment between the two best of Springsteen's career.

Let's consider picking 11 songs from the 13 best that are left after eliminations for other use or lower quality. Of those 13, "The Brokenhearted" and "Breakaway" are both slow and sound too similar to use both; I choose to cut "The Brokenhearted," which is a bit weak in the lyrics department. "Fire" is fun, but a little too retro to take seriously; it'd make a nice B-side for the first single, which could have been "Gotta Get That Feeling" for its upbeat and joyous sound (also making it a good choice to kick off the album). That's got us down to 11 songs totaling 42 minutes, a perfectly reasonable length for an LP. Figuring out a sequence that's got variety and flows well on each side could give us this:

Side 1 (22:38)
"Gotta Get That Feeling"
"Because the Night"
"Ain't Good Enough for You"
"Breakaway"
"Rendezvous"
"Wrong Side of the Street"

Side 2 (20:00)
"Talk to Me"
"Outside Looking In"
"One Way Street"
"The Little Things (My Baby Does)"
"Someday (We'll Be Together)"

So what The Promise provides us is an excellent and fun album of classic-era Bruce that you haven't heard before, for the cost of a new Bruce album, plus we get to hear historically fascinating examples of the origins of half of Darkness, and a few lesser outtakes to consider as bonus tracks. I only have two complaints. Without the four* '77-78 songs on Tracks (and there was room to include them here), The Promise gives an incomplete picture of the period (I guess I'll have to construct that set myself on my iTunes). And (unlike Tracks) no recording dates are provided. Obviously that's just quibbling. All hail mid-'70s Bruce, the gifted one who keeps on giving over three decades later. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtje

*Mr. Holtje suspects that the recording date on Tracks for "Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own" should be 1979, not 1977, which is why he says there are four '77-78 songs on Tracks, not five. (He's also not counting the undated live "Rendezvous.")

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