Album: Bruce Springsteen, "The Promise" (Columbia)
No song on "The Promise" belongs on "Darkness on the Edge of Town." The 21 songs, many of them unknown except to the most avid of bootleg collectors, are imbued with the ambition of "Born to Run," the influence of the Jersey shore -- aka "home" -- and traditional Springsteen themes, like the search for sanctuary and redemption.
It is, as Bruce Springsteen and his team suggest, a complete album trussed together, and not a collection of outtakes, like "Tracks," with the result being more "The River" than "Darkness II," a collection that represents a transitional phase in an artist's life.
The documentary "The Promise," included in the deluxe edition, drives home the idea that the longer Springsteen spent in legal limbo before recording a follow up to "BTR," the more he opted for a stripped down sound and his interpretation of the energy of punk. "The Promise," all of which was written and recorded in 1977 and '78, with the exception of the newly recorded "Save My Love," occupies a space between the past that Springsteen glorified -- the creations of Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, obscure Stax singers and Dylan at his wordiest -- and the common-man future he would create.
It opens with an absolutely astounding version of "Racing in the Streets ('78)," a full-bore, four-on-the-floor arrangement that owes much more to "Backstreets" off "Born to Run" than to the version that would make it onto the end of the first side of "Darkness." The arrangement gives it the "BTR" life-or-death feeling and lyrically, the early version had so many Springsteen earmarks he could have been accused of plagiarizing himself -- one line even includes references to dreams, a front porch and a torn dress.
More than any other song on the album, "Racing in the Streets" demonstrates Springsteen's development as a songwriter. "Racing" exposes the Boss' desire to enhance the realism in his songs, to take ephemeral moments and place them as patterns within a life- and not fate-determining coin tosses.
The key lyrical change from "Racing ('78)" to the "Darkness" version was to make the actual race an after-work event, rather than a fleeting moment for drivers and mechanics with no other skills or ambition. The car, in the original, was a '32 Ford, a fine image for "American Graffiti," but inappropriate for a song that eventually is about escape and the bright road ahead. The lyrical twist on the Motown hit "Dancing in the Street" originally closed the second lengthy verse and worked like a punch line. In the version we've all grown up with, it's part of the background -- the song on the radio that someone is humming, the reference clever without attracting attention to itself.
Finally, and to some degree this probably helped the landlocked folks believe they could identify with Springsteen, he changed "Turnpike" on the original to the de-Jerseyfied "interstate." After three albums of being site specific, Springsteen became the rare artist to make the generic work as a specific.
Listening to "The Promise" within the echo of "Darkness" gives an illusion that the new album's arrangements are overblown. Thinking about it as a "Born to Run" sequel, it comes off conflicted, a man still enamored with Orbison -- "Someday (We'll Be Together)" -- yet interested in tapping into new influences, such as Willy DeVille ("Spanish Eyes"), the Velvet Underground ("Candy's Son") and the combination of Willy and Lou Reed ("City of Night"). As Thom Zimny's documentaries on both records explain, Springsteen is an exacting taskmaster in the studio. Whether it's a Clarence Clemons' solo or the sound of Max Weinberg's stick hitting the drums, Springsteen has a remarkable vision of how a song should sound when it is finished. Not every track on "The Promise" is infused with a similar level of completeness.
While writing the epics of "Born to Run" and the spare tunes of "Darkness," Springsteen was still trying to pen a catchy pop tune that connected with the soul music of his youth, a bit of hippity-hop fun that would work as a ray of light amid the night-time street scenes of the two albums. A few of those types of songs wound up on "The River" -- "Crush on You," "I'm a Rocker" -- and a few showed up on "Tracks" -- "Give the Girl a Kiss," "So Young and in Love," "Where the Bands Are." There are sufficient slower examples of his R&B roots, "Hungry Heart" being the most obvious, but "Ain't Good Enough for you," "Talk to Me" and "The Little Things (My Baby Does)" further reveal a third side of Springsteen that has never been musically assimilated. It's the songs about girls and good times, frivolity and pleasure with no hidden meaning. In the last 10 years, he has been able to recast those emotions with nostalgic reflection -- "Mary's Place" and "Girls in their Summer Clothes" -- but as a writer, he never quite found his Sam & Dave voice. Instead, it manifested itself in the live show, with Springsteen's unique combination of preacher, circus barker and psychic that was rooted in mid-'60s Southern soul.
Like Chuck Berry did with "Bye Bye Johnny," Springsteen uses "Breakaway" to return to Sonny, the main character of "Racing," and puts him in the company of other characters Springsteen-ites are familiar with, Bobby and Janie. The car has broken down in the ballad -- it is rooted in the "Darkness" version of "Racing" -- and in the end, the characters are where we expect to find them -- on the side of the road, looking for answers and a chance to escape the consequences of previous actions.
The track precedes "The Promise," which may eventually be looked at as the ultimate encapsulation of Springsteen between the creation of the breakthrough "Born to Run" and the superstar-creating "Born in the USA." The characters are factory workers, the specifics refer to the type of car (a Dodge Challenger) and the road (Route 9, which can get you from the shore to Manhattan), and the effects of your actions permanent. The references, too, are all familiar -- Thunder Road, Darlington, guys named Billy and Terry working with a rock and roll band -- giving "Breakaway" the feeling of a chapter from a serial.
The lack of liner notes beyond an essay from Springsteen that explains how "a lot of sweet and important music was lost" when he picked the recordings for "Darkness," means the listener will have to piece together the chronology in the two-CD set. Obviously, Sony Music and Springsteen needed to make a decision to keep confusion over the packages to a minimum, but there has to be some concern that Sony has not made the remastered "Darkness" available on its own or in a three-CD set with the material on "The Promise." On one hand, it helps "The Promise" stand on its own as the 17th studio collection in the Springsteen canon, but it has to sting any fan of "Darkness" with an ear for fidelity but without 100 bucks to drop on the deluxe set.