Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bruce Springsteen's The Promise: the greatest album never released?

By Neil McCormick
15 November 2010

What an utterly extraordinary thing Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise is. Out today, it comprises 21 recordings of unreleased songs and radically different versions from his prolific 1977-78 sessions that ultimately led to the creation of Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Just think about that: a treasure trove of new material from one of the all time great artists right bang in his moment, in the glory of his youth, creative juices at full flow. How unlikely? It would be comparable to discovering The Beatles had recorded and abandoned an entire double album of material between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.

In fact, despite their fascinating three volume double album Anthology set, there was nothing really new and unheard from the Fab Four, certainly nothing of the standard of their official releases. And that is the way box sets of out-takes usually are. Because, for the most part, artists put out their best work at the time, and the stuff that is endlessly trawled from the vaults is really only of historical interest to the obsessive collector. Dylan’s very good Bootleg series occasionally turns up a real gem ("Series of Dreams" and "Blind Willie McTell" for example), because he has a curious inability to separate his own wheat from his chaff, but no one will ever persuade me that the demo versions of songs from Blood On The Tracks (as much as I love to hear them) are the equal to the classic album.

Springsteen’s recording in ‘77 and ‘78 was different, however, because he was consciously trying to move from one artistic point to another, writing and rewriting and recording and discarding, so that a different sort of album emerges from the cast offs, with more of the upbeat swagger of the earlier Born To Run, and rich in the musical references of 50s and 60s rock and roll that he was exploring. It is not a better record than Darkness, but it is a different one. Springsteen was working towards the goal of creating a long playing album which would form his great (indeed his only) statement for that period, so he was essentially forced to boil down a huge amount of work to his most essential songs. The title track, "The Promise", is a song that was supplanted by his masterpiece "Racing In The Streets" (also included here in an extraordinary epic rock version), but "The Promise" stands up in its own right as a song about dreaming and escape with driving as a metaphor, referring back to his earlier classic "Thunder Road" and forward to the darker, more downbeat perspective of Darkness.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town has always been my favourite Springsteen CD. It hit me at the right moment, with the right hard edge. Its sensibility (as Springsteen acknowledges in his liner notes) was grittier than his more aspirational early recordings, connecting to the harder economic mood and music of the time, culling his work to something both richer and tougher, “songs that still form the philosophical core of what we do today,” as he writes. As a young 17-year-old punk it opened up streams of American music that I was in danger of setting myself against.

"Candy’s Room" was amongst my favourite tracks, a dark tale of a young man’s love for a prostitute, driven by a racing hi-hat that contrasted with the low, almost spoken vocal, until it explodes into full E Street Band roar as Springsteen declares “what she wants is me.” On The Promise, Candy reappears in an earlier version, "Candy’s Boy", a country lament for the same prostitute. It’s not a better song, but it’s beautiful, fascinating, and I feel like I am meeting an old love again, in new circumstances.

Box sets of out-takes may be on the increase, but The Promise is a real rarity. As recording technology has got so much cheaper and more portable, musicians constantly record every new idea and cast off song, with the result that the wealth of out-takes available for future release is ever growing. When someone dies (as we are about to find out with Michael Jackson) there is frequently enough material leftover to sustain new releases for a decade. But (and it’s a big but) with albums in decline as a commercial proposition, everything is about the individual track, released through a whole range of outlets (from CD extras to iTunes exclusives) so there is no pressing reason for someone to go through the kind of private artistic journey Springsteen underwent on the way to Darkness. If it’s worth hearing, you’ll probably hear it at the time. Besides, how many artists are working at such a high level that their leftovers are a match for their official releases? The Promise is an exceedingly rare opportunity to hear new work from an all time great in his prime. I wonder if we will ever hear its like again?

Images: Lynn Goldsmith

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise (Columbia)

Lost songs from the Darkness At The Edge Of Town sessions are E Street Band classics.

By Alan Morrison
The Herald
15 Nov 2010

To begin with, don’t think that this latest release from Bruce Springsteen is anything like the usual “expanded”, “deluxe” or “special” editions that increasingly see any old album repackaged for the nostalgia market with an extra CD of demos, live bootlegs, early studio takes and rejected songs that wouldn’t even grace a B-side.

Yes, The Promise is a collection of 21 songs recorded around the same time as Darkness On The Edge Of Town in 1977 and 1978 (22 if you include hidden track "The Way"). And yes, the three-CD, three-DVD box set comes with a digitally remastered version of that previously released album, plus a 90-minute ‘Making of’ documentary that was good enough to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and two discs of live footage (one featuring the album in running order, recorded in New Jersey’s Asbury Park last year; the other a “bootleg house cut” of tracks from all four of Springsteen’s first four albums, shot in 1978 in Houston). All that’s missing from the package is a sheet of wrapping paper and a “Merry Christmas, Dad” card.

Concentrate instead on what The Promise (released separately too) is in its own right: a double album of songs from the “lost sessions” of Springsteen’s career wasteland, when he was trapped in a legal dispute with his former manager, unable to follow up Born To Run because of a court ban that stopped him entering a recording studio. Some songs from this era have already slipped out on the Tracks compilation or into live sets over the years or as hits for other artists (notably "Because The Night", co-written with Patti Smith but reclaimed here in studio form by The Boss and his E Street Band). But never before have we so clearly witnessed the transition that took Springsteen from music fan-boy to singer-songwriter of global importance.

More than two-thirds of the songs on The Promise have their roots in the past. Some wear their influences on their sleeves – Roy Orbison on "Breakaway"; Buddy Holly on "Outside Looking In"; Elvis Presley on "Fire"; 1960s soul here, there and everywhere. It’s as if Springsteen, at 27 years of age, was sifting through all the rock’n’roll, Stax and Motown soul, country ballad and Spector pop LPs of his youth, tossing them around in his head and seeing what emerged in the studio.

There are, of course, a handful of tracks that better reflect the Springsteen we’ve come to know – the man who can take a neighbourhood narrative and embue it with epic, universal significance, who can take a tune and render it in a musical landscape as wide as the American plains. Those songs are here, particularly in the string arrangements and "Thunder Road" references of the title track, and in a bigger band (with prominent harmonica and fiddle) version of "Racing In The Street".

But placed side by side with Darkness On The Edge Of Town, they’re conspicuous by their absence. Obviously there was a conscious decision that, three years after the global smash of Born To Run, the Bruce Springsteen the world would hear next was a more serious fellow. Darkness is a tougher album, with a sombre world view, concerned with rising unemployment and the hardship of blue-collar daily life. Its songs are shaved of the escapism that powers the words and music of Born To Run. Springsteen in this period became his own man, his Jiminy Cricket social conscience kicked in and, for a time at least, he pushed that mythic America to the side and put the party on hold.

What The Promise reveals, however, is that the party never really went away stopped. These 22 songs are the rays of sunshine breaking out from Darkness’s clouds. Springsteen the commercial pop writer has rarely been better than on "Rendezvous", "The Little Things (My Baby Does)" and "Wrong Side Of The Street", with its brilliantly unexpected chord changes. He’s a walking encyclopedia of the American music that came before him, and The Promise is a great American album in that context.

Some might argue that, had it been released just ahead of Darkness, it would have been the weak link in that stellar chain from Born To Run through to The River and Nebraska. I’d argue that it would probably have sold better than Darkness On The Edge Of Town. But that’s irrelevant: it’s out now, with Jimmy Iovine’s original engineering polished up by Bob Clearmountain’s present-day mixes. It’s not just of historical interest, a glimpse of a major artist at a creative peak: it’s a near-classic in the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band repertoire and, if not one of the top albums of 1978, one of the very best of 2010.

Images: Lynn Goldsmith

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