Bruce Springsteen: The Promise
In 1975, the struggling American singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen released his third album, Born to Run. His first two LPs had received warm critical acclaim but hadn’t set the charts alight, and this was the New Jerseyite’s last shot at mass communication, to quote one of his acolyte bands. It would turn out to be a huge success.
With his third album representing his commercial breakthrough, this meant in turn his fourth album became his difficult ‘second’ album. Entitled Darkness on the Edge of Town, the mood of this record was darker and more introspective than Born to Run, which was barely all sweetness and light itself. As such, Springsteen jettisoned a number of tracks he didn’t feel were in keeping with the themes of the record, and as it had been three years the last record, he had written a lot of songs. These cast offs make up The Promise.
There are two versions of this release, which was pencilled in to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the album’s release and which was delayed by Springsteen’s contemporary activities; one is simply a double disc set comprising on the songs that didn’t make it onto Darkness..., while the other is a box set comprising three CDs and three DVDs, including a remastered version of the album itself. Springsteen acolytes will undoubtedly already own most of the tracks present here from their appearances on the Tracks and 18 Tracks Box Sets. However, for those people that simply have a keen interest in Springsteen’s work, here is a chance to hear a host of tracks from arguably his peak period for a fraction of a cost of a box set.
The Promise opens with an alternative version of ‘Racing in the Street’, the song that closed side one of the original LP, with slightly different lyrics and a more upbeat arrangement. It’s one of Springsteen’s best songs, and for me this arrangement is better than that of the album proper. Present are all the hallmarks of the patented Springsteen wall of sound; plaintive piano, overblown harmonica, lyrics about escaping small town Americana in your muscle car, weaved around Max Weinberg’s explosive drumming and the Boss’s own parsimonious guitar playing. It’s really a wonderful version of a great song, and it’s pleasing that this version has been given an outing.
Of the 21 tracks here, some became famous as hits for other musicians, most notably ‘Because the Night’, which was a hit for Patti Smith in 1978, and the Pointer Sisters reached no. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 with ‘Fire’ in the same year.
While Springsteen himself has inspired many artists since the seventies, the man himself was in thrall to Elvis and Roy Orbison; ‘Outside Looking In’ and ‘The Brokenhearted’ echo the Big O, and ‘Ain’t Good Enough For You’ is an old school 50s rock and roller that’s not quite, but almost in the Presley bullpen. ‘Save My Love’ is the one of the best songs present, and probably the closest we get to the warmer sound of Born To Run. It’s worth noting that these songs are overtly positive in lyrical outlook, while the sarcastic ‘Ain’t Good Enough for You’ is joyous in its musical abandon. There are some false steps here; ‘Someday (We’ll Be Together)’ is a song that doesn’t quite manage to escape the gravity well of its own saccharine sentiment. As is ‘Candy’s Boy’, a markedly different alternate version of ‘Candy’s Room’.
‘The Promise’ itself seems to be a companion piece, if not a sequel to Born to Run’s opening gambit, ‘Thunder Road’; mirroring the earlier song’s ‘desperate optimism’ with a more subdued realism in which the protagonist has failed to escape his small town drudgery, and is condemned to lost love and fixed games.
In all honesty, you can see why many of these tracks didn’t make the finished album, given Springsteen’s sky high ambition and attention to detail at the time. There are songs here that would represent a career high if written by any other artist, but compared to the likes of ‘Badlands’ or ‘Racing in the Street’, they pale into insignificance. They’re also more concerned with romance and the pursuit of happiness, which seems like a volte-face when compared with the usual subjects of Springsteen’s lyrics, i.e. raging against the dying of the American dream.
Perhaps The Promise should be taken as nothing more than a historical document that records the extensive and exhausting composition and editing processes that went into the recording of Springsteen’s late 70s albums. However, the argument that many of these songs were excluded from Darkness... because they were not a thematic fit is disingenuous as there are few that match the quality of the material on the finished album. That said, lyrically the compositions present on The Promise are on the whole lighter and less dramatic in tone than those of Darkness..., an album whose characters suffer crushing blows and are unable to escape their kitchen sink predicaments. This is in complete contrast to the desperate optimism of both the preceding album’s overall tone, and that of the tracks forming this collection.
It is remarkable to think that an artist was willing to risk his hard earned and newly found success with a collection of downbeat songs. However, as the Boss himself has observed “I tried (writing happy songs) in the early '90s and it didn't work; the public didn't like it”. So maybe it’s for the best that these off-cuts, more positive in outlook, have remained by-and-large unknown until now.
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