It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything genuinely “dark” from the artist not always known as “The Boss.” Back before his working man’s hero act became as kitschy as a Phil Levine poem with factory smoke in it (or, for that matter, a Rick Springfield song), he explored a totally believable and sincere American mythos that hadn’t yet washed away in the saccharin production of Born in the USA or his last two albums, Magic and Working on a Dream–possibly the weakest one-two punch of releases in the man’s career. Even the brilliant Tunnel of Love LP in 1987, which he wrote while digging himself out of the smoldering ruin of a marriage gone bad, sported claws that were sharp to the eye but clipped occasionally by his preference for sonic excess over the spare, bleeding wound of the “NY Sessions” of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, for example, where there’s no band and it’s just Dylan spitting at the world and the woman who razed it as the buttons of his coat audibly rap his acoustic guitar while he plays. (Even today Dylan can’t help but backstroke through his disappointment in, well, everything, singing “dreams never did anything for me anyway / even when they did come true” on his 2009 album Together Through Life.)
It’s precisely that sort of disappointment and resignation in which Springsteen found such an articulate voice that his songs became the working-class narcotic of a generation. You’ll hear it once again on The Promise–outtakes from the sessions that brought us the masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978–and really for the first time since tracks like “Downbound Train” or “One Step Up” from his ’80s prime (although moments on the excellent comeback albums Devils and Dust and The Rising come close). But if these are the explorations that culminated in Darkness, they were recorded somewhere inside the blazing sunrise that preceded it. Disc one opens with an absolutely bombastic take on “Racing in the Street,” where Roy Bittan’s fluttering piano work cheers up the distant organ riffs that approximate the version we know so well by now. But then somebody starts blowing the guts out of a mouth harp, Max Weinberg starts beating the balls off his drums and Bruce gradually builds toward the unhinged howl he lets loose on tracks like “Adam Raised a Cain” or “Something in the Night.” Violins sneak into the mix like a Facebook message from a good buddy you haven’t heard from since high school, and ultimately you end up with the unthinkable possibility that the sum of all this is actually superior to the standard version we’ve been listening to for the past 32 years. Unthinkable, yes—until you hear it for yourself.
And that’s just the first track of a double disc package with 21 songs on it. If you’re already exhausted, you’re starting to understand what it’s like to listen to what Springsteen calls “the music that got left behind.”
Six-and-a-half minutes into “Racing,” the whole beautiful mess slow-fades into a stunning little track called “Gotta Get That Feeling” whose production has Little Stevie’s fingerprints all over it. Van Zandt’s adoration for Wall-of-Sound-era Doo-wop is no secret to anyone that has listened to his “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” radio show for more than five minutes. The arrangement sounds like Phil Spector gets into a head-on collision with a mariachi band and, miraculously, both parties survive. The horn section is haunted by the ghost of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” while Bittan’s bright piano once again drives a backbone through the song.
A couple tracks later the gorgeous “Someday (We’ll Be Together”) opens with a jangle of mall-Santa bells and a sluggish drum beat that sounds like the Ronettes got piss drunk and recorded a midnight version of “Be My Baby” at the speed of sleep. The song sweats with the kind of desperate desire that only a 20-something kid from Jersey still groping for the dreams he followed out of Asbury Park can convey. It is emotionally riveting, impactful stuff.
Springsteen’s take on “Because the Night,” though, is the diamond in the mine of disc one. Inevitably eclipsed by Patti Smith’s downright vicious interpretation that made the track famous the same year that Darkness was released–with Bruce’s version of the song left to gather dust until now (although he did include a live version on his huge live offering, Live 1975-1985) —Springsteen’s take burns to life with the youthful radiance that makes his clumsy 1973 debut record and its follow-up so much fun to listen to. It’s hard to hear the song through Patti’s signature version, but if you can somehow tune Patti out for the length of the song and listen to Bruce’s version on its own terms–admittedly not easy; that woman has a voice that bellows from the center of the earth—the track bears a gush of fruit to reward you for the effort.
Disc two gets off to a remarkably coy start against the explosion with which Disc one begins, as a pretty forgettable rock-ballad called “Save My Love” sounds as tossed-off as the title. But things quickly turn around with the jumpy “Ain’t Good Enough For You” that brings to mind the brilliant “Spirit in the Night” from Greetings from Asbury Park, with an instantly catchy piano riff cushioned in the fabric of so many deep-voiced backup singers. Then everybody starts whistling, applauding and laughing like they just happen to be celebrating Bruce’s birthday as they lay down the track. 1970s-era Bruce never quite figured out how to put together the kind of taut, radio-ready single he mastered in the ensuing decade, but “Ain’t Good Enough for You” suggests that he already had it in him–he just didn’t yet care to go there.
“It’s a Shame” crackles with life from first moment to last, knee-deep in a gritty guitar riff that turns the track into possibly the most accessible rock song Springsteen ever put to tape in the 1970s, while “The Promise” and “City of Night” rein in the enthusiasm with gray-skied ballads that thrust the lives of the forgotten under the unforgiving glare of Springsteen’s America. A penniless scamp is taking a taxi to see his sugar baby somewhere on 12th & Vine in the middle of the night, someone’s cashing in his dreams out on Route 9, and everybody carries on despite a gnawing feeling that they left their lives behind them somewhere.
Even the best of Bruce’s more recent output makes clear that in the twilight of his career he can only hope to approximate the desperate streets he wandered in song decades ago, but that’s why The Promise is such a welcome gift. The package as a whole has its flaws—some of the tracks should have stayed where Springsteen left them—but as a whole these 21 songs bring back to life the soiled rags and busted dreams of the America he used to sing about. It’s the America where there is work to be found in Darlington County if you know where to look for it, the America where “Johnny works in a factory and Billy works downtown,” and when they get home they rinse the grime from their faces and go out racing in the streets with their ’32 Fords.
The Promise: The Spill from Around the Web
Pitchfork: “Still, despite the lack of consistency, the 22 new songs (there are 21 tracks, but “The Way” is a hidden bonus track at the end) are mostly very good and occasionally great. None feel like they should have been on Darkness, but almost all of them holds up to repeat plays and stand on their own as very good Springsteen– easily on the level of mid-level stuff on The River, say.”
Chicago Tribune: “What’s less appreciated about the era chronicled on “Promise” is the large volume of exceptional music that didn’t make the final cut, left to languish unheard except for a few live performances and covers by other artists — until now.”
SoundCheck: “Of the new songs, longtime fans will be familiar with most, yet the material has never been released with such solid in-studio treatment. “Rendezvous,” for example, has made occasional concert appearances over the years, but to hear it so alive and fresh is a revelation.”