January 23, 2011

Looking for that million-dollar sound: Reviewing Springsteen's The Promise.

Bruce Springsteen has had success with double albums; The River might be the perfect mix of merry and melancholy, "Sherry Darling" coexisting with "Stolen Car." That's one of the freedoms of a double album; you're allowed diverting, disjointed themes. And yet Bruce makes it all part of the same package; The River feels like it encompasses all the ups and downs of life.

The Promise isn't quite there, but considering it's a compilation of outtakes and passed-over material, that's not a bad thing. Even though it's supposedly all tracks that were possibilities for Darkness on the Edge of Town, not a single song would fit on the album that Bruce and The E Street Band ended up producing. That doesn't mean they're subpar; they're just about different things. Say what you will about Bruce's song-selection process, but the man knows how to put together a record with a unifying message.

One of the more intriguing aspects of The Promise is how Springsteen touched up and, in some cases, completely redid songs from the Darkness sessions. "Save My Love" is the most glaring example; it's a great song, stuffed into a quick two minutes and 40 seconds, but it was also recorded in 2010. Written in the 70s, of course, but produced by the current incarnation of The E Street Band. This isn't a bad thing, it's just...slightly odd to hear.

It's also impossible not to compare these versions with their previously published predecessors. "Rendezvous," "Fire" and "Because the Night" are the most obvious examples, and they've all been done better elsewhere. I prefer Southside Johnny's "Talk To Me" to Bruce's, even though Bruce actually wrote it, and the alternate version of "Racing in the Street" isn't as interesting as, say, "Wings for Wheels" is when compared to "Thunder Road."

Yet at the same time, one of the joys of The Promise is seeing how Bruce's mind works. There are snippets of "I'm On Fire" in "Spanish Eyes," "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" became "Factory" and "Candy's Boy" is, obviously, an early "Candy's Room." Sometimes it's a complete overhaul, sometimes it's just swapped-out lyrics or a change in the musical tone, but you can hear some of his future masterpieces starting to take shape.

As he ages, Bruce has gotten better at offering a glimpse into his work, through methods like Thom Zimny's Darkness documentary and the release of these older, "lost" materials. And with that, we can see how adept he is at moving lyrics around like puzzle pieces. This goes here, that goes there, paste this, cut that, and bam: there's your song. That's never more apparent than on The Promise.

Disc 1 has a few gems, including the most Southside-sounding song Bruce ever recorded, "Gotta Get That Feeling." Disc 2, however, is where the album shines. I'm an unabashed The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle fan, and "City Of Night" has a simple, sparse sound that reminds me of "New York City Serenade." "It's a Shame" is another soulful, Southside-y romp, and the aforementioned "Save My Love" would have been a wildly successful single, even if it sounds a little weird coming out of present-day Bruce's mouth.

And in a perfect world, "Ain't Good Enough For You" would be known as one of his most crowd-pleasing hits. It's catchy as hell, funny and perfect to dance to. Basically, it couldn't be less Darkness-appropriate. Alas, it'll forever be just one of many outtakes, grouped together with "So Young and In Love" and "I Wanna Be With You" as his most outgoing, "mass audience-worthy" lost tracks.

Then there's "The Promise," probably the most oft-discussed Bruce song that he never, ever plays. The story behind "The Promise" is that Bruce wrote it during a legal battle over his music; he had been previously locked into an unfair contract, and it wasn't clear when he'd be able to record another album. He name-checks "Thunder Road" a few times, implying that this is the continuation of their story. But Mary and her man-friend have obviously fallen on some hard times, much like our songwriter, finding that "every day it just gets harder to live, this dream I'm believing in."

The song is like the bridge from Born to Run to Darkness, when Bruce went from being a bright-eyed, pent-up youngster to America's most frank and uncompromising mainstream musical legend. He would still become the "future of rock and roll," but he was going to take rock where he wanted it to go, not where everyone expected of him.

(Of course, if you want to read a real writer on "The Promise," please check out what the song did/does to Joe Posnanski's insides. It's the kind of written masterpiece that Bruce would understand, something I'll never come close to reproducing.)

In the end, what is The Promise? It's a worthy addition to Bruce's catalogue, a collection of good-to-great songs offered as a package but loosely linked thematically. Mostly, it's just another way to honor Springsteen's genius; songs like these would define the careers of other artists, and Bruce had no qualms about locking them in the basement for 30 years. If he wants to spend his remaining years pumping out unexamined, satisfying gems from his past, well, that's alright with me.

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