Now some guys they just give up living
and start dying little by little, piece by piece.
Some guys come home from work and wash up
And go racing in the streets.
In 1975, at the age of 25, Bruce Springsteen released his third album Born to Run, a commercial and artistic success that solidified his place as the official raconteur of middle-class New Jersey. His tales of paved expanses and the salt-corroded machinery carrying misfits from boardwalk to boardwalk were wrapped in layers of rock orchestration unheard since Phil Spector was regularly terrorizing the studios of Los Angeles. (Few men can get away with using a piano, an organ and a glockenspiel all at once.) But following the album's success, Springsteen found himself locked in a legal dispute with his manager. He spent three years recording and touring before releasing his next album Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Now Springsteen definitively proves it wasn't writer's block that was keeping him off the radio with the release of The Promise: twenty-one tracks of Darkness-era outtakes, unreleased studio versions of live staples and even a newly recorded song (just to give the purists something to complain about). Overall the new tracks are interesting–but Springsteen's thirty-two year old decisions still seem like the right ones.
The double album opens with a Darkness outtake of “Racing in the Street” that is a little too reminiscent of “Thunder Road.” An identical harmonica intro directs it immediately into the alternative takes bin. The alternate has a more grandiose conclusion but there was already plenty of that on the official release. “Come On (Let's Go Tonight)” is an alternative take to “Factory”, an equally brief working-class dirge that could have just as easily fit on the Billy Elliott soundtrack. “Candy's Boy” is an alternative take on the breathy-but-bombastic “Candy's Room” with a more “classic rock” structure than the official release: Springsteen takes the sparse official track, adds a few verses and trades the guitar pyrotechnics for a roller-rink organ solo to diminished effect.
Springsteen has always been a scholar of rock 'n' roll–especially with the official garage rock professor, Steven Van Zandt, hanging somewhere off to his left for the last forty years. So it is no surprise to find a fair number of genre exercises littered throughout the album. “Ain't Good Enough for You” is the band's take on one of those party-in-the-studio albums that came out in the mid '60s–from the Beach Boys' Party! to Cannonball Adderley's Mercy Mercy Mercy. The band's off-time background vocals, whistles and handclaps capture the party vibe while Springsteen goofs his way through a litany of romantic frustrations. “Outside Looking In” is a Buddy Holly rave-up with rumbling tom-toms and scratchy guitars that is just a few vocal hiccups short of a tribute band.
While Springsteen was recording his highly orchestrated epics, the music world around him was changing. The punk movement, boiling less than forty blocks south of Springsteen's New York recording studio, was in mid-battle cry: Talking Heads '77, Marquee Moon and Ramones. Springsteen wasn't oblivious. His collaboration with Patti Smith, “Because the Night,” became one of the biggest selling singles to come out of the CBGB's scene. (Is it surprising that the combination of these two artists sounds remarkably like Cher?) But Springsteen never released a version of his own at the time although it has remained in his live repertoire to this day. The studio version here is a little slower and grander than the Smith version but Springsteen adds a mid-song key change that lifts it to another level.
Springsteen also scored a chart hit when the Pointer Sisters covered his song “Fire” in 1978. The song was originally written for Elvis Presley but became a tribute to him when he died as Springsteen was still toiling in the studio. The Pointer Sisters version is sparser than Springsteen's–more indebted to the Motown girl groups with its tambourine and organ. Springsteen, when performing the song live, often brings out his more theatrical side with coy poses that say more than the lyrics ever could. The resulting studio version is an Elvis tribute that is as much white jumpsuit as pre-Army provocateur.
A lot of purists have shed some tears over Springsteen's decision to add overdubs to his old recordings. This revisionist history has become a bit of a genre these days with albums like Paul McCartney's Let It Be…Naked or the Rolling Stones' recent release of Exile on Main Street and even Brian Wilson's SMiLE. How can there be anything wrong with an artist choosing to alter his own work? The songs might not have benefited from the added work but it's not like he's finishing some lost Jim Morrison bootlegs. In releasing these tracks he has already yielded to some higher marketing power, otherwise he would have released them 30-something years ago. The man wants to do all he can to protect his integrity while preserving his brand. So aside from the added strings and vocals Springsteen has recorded a new song, “Save My Love”–a textbook “Springsteen” song with cascading piano octaves, precision drumming and a soaring chorus. It fits right alongside the other songs, which attests to both the sturdiness of his trademark sound as well as his willingness to exploit it.
The Promise is rather great as a collection of outtakes, but it is an exemplary indicator of the standard that Springsteen upheld in releasing his long-awaited follow-up. As an album, the collection falls a little short of coherence. The quantity of tracks is enough to indicate that it was never intended as an album. The best tracks were chosen for Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Nothing touches the greatness of songs like “Streets of Fire” or “Adam Raised a Cain” for sheer exuberance and screeching guitar. Springsteen is at his jaded best on Darkness, sneering alongside the rest of his generation in denim and a bandana rather than leather and a mohawk. Now in his 60s, Springsteen has lived long enough to see his work interpreted by multiple generations. He has received considerable hints to what his legacy will be. With Promise, he is responding as he sees fit. Who wouldn't, at the age of 61, change of few things they might have done when they were 25?