The Promise

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia, 2010

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For the first two decades of his career, Bruce Springsteen was both a prolific songwriter and extremely particular—some, Springsteen among them, might say “neurotic”—about which of his recorded songs he actually released to the public.

The man’s steady flow of creative output not only did not ebb during the extended hiatus between his 1975 breakthrough Born To Run and its iconic 1978 follow-up Darkness On The Edge Of Town—delayed by a messy divorce from his first manager—it actually accelerated. In the liner notes to this 2010 double-CD release, Springsteen reveals that “During the year we spent recording, we made many albums. Add to this collection the material from Tracks that had Darkness as its origin and you have upwards of forty songs, four albums. We released one. I still believe it’s the right one… but the music that got left behind was substantial.”

The songs collected here as The Promise bridge the gap between Born To Run and Darkness in a more definitive way than the smorgasbord of individual cuts shared on Tracks. You can hear Springsteen steadily moving beyond Born To Run’s expansive, street-punk-romantic approach toward the more grounded, naturalistic, hard-edged Darkness and The River as he begins to come to grips with adulthood and what that means for him and his peers.

While the tracklist for The Promise is—as usual—thoughtfully arranged and paced—the 21 songs collected here fall pretty readily into three broad categories.

The songs in the first category feel like encores to Born To Run. Opener “Racing In The Street ’78” is a full band arrangement of the Darkness song that feels like the version he would have recorded if it had been part of the Born To Run album—big and bold and melodramatic. It also serves as a proof of concept for the definitive version’s slow and stark arrangement, which is much more effective in tapping into the melancholy at the heart of the lyric. The big-boned “Wrong Side Of The Street,” the stately “Spanish Eyes,” and the romantic “The Little Things (My Baby Does)” similarly feel like they bridge the gap between the two albums’ styles.

Like “Racing,” “Candy’s Boy” offers a fascinating glimpse inside Springsteen’s process. The feverish clarion call of “Candy’s Room” on Darkness begins here as a sing-songy midtempo number, with just a couple of familiar lines retained in the final lyric. This early iteration begins draped in the romantic expansiveness of my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Born To Run before adding a melancholy tinge as the narrator realizes Candy likes someone else, and resigns himself to the loss. The ferocious urgency and determination that drives “Candy’s Room” hadn’t yet entered Springsteen’s imagination at this stage.

The songs in the second category are ones The Boss ended up giving away to other artists. Springsteen’s studio version of “Because The Night” is remarkable more for what it isn’t than what it is. The performance presented on Live ’75-’85 remains the most powerful Springsteen version of the song; as much juice as he tries to put into it in this studio recording, it falls short of the pulse-pounding impact of either his own live rendition, or the definitive Patti Smith version. Springsteen’s recording of “Rendezvous”—given to Greg Kihn after he recorded a memorable cover of “For You”—mostly serves to reveal how slight a song it is, just three quick stanzas, and it feels like Springsteen recognizes he never quite finished it; his performance doesn’t feel fully committed.

And then there’s “Fire,” to which I can only say “damn.” Never mind the fact that the guy churned out four albums’ worth of songs in a year; this “giveaway” is such an obvious hit: catchy, sexy, charismatic. To give away a song this good you’ve gotta have (a) a lot of confidence, and (b) a lot more quality material in your hip pocket. Bruce’s original recording of the Pointer Sisters’ big hit is one of the high points of this collection, with his love for Elvis coming through clearly, especially on the bridge.

The songs in the third category offer clear foreshadowing of the music to come on Darkness and The River. “Gotta Get That Feeling” and “Outside Looking In” are songs about disappointment, alienation, and thwarted dreams that live inside the same 1962-ish early rock framework that fed into later tunes like “Out In The Street.” “Someday We’ll Be Together” and “The Brokenhearted” feel like ballads from the same era, as if they ought to be by a band called Bruce & The Moonlights. And “Save My Love,” “Ain’t Good Enough For You,” “Talk To Me” and “Breakaway” all also hark back to early rock tropes and arrangements.

In this third category, the particularly on-point “It’s A Shame” offers a bluesy mid-tempo tale of a guy working hard trying to please his woman and feeling unsure if it’s getting him anywhere. Both it and “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” have a melancholy core that feels like a precursor to songs like “Factory.” Finally, the title track earns that honor by thematically spanning and summing up this entire era of Springsteen’s catalog: it’s a song about feeling trapped by life and forced to play a bad hand, that feels like both a melancholy postscript to “Born To Run” (“Thunder Road, baby you were so right”) and a prototype for “The River” (“When the promise is broken you go on living / But it steals something from down in your soul”).

One question remains, then: do Springsteen’s real-time decisions about what to do with these songs—keep developing them, give them away, or set them aside—feel like the right ones? My answer is yes. Of this entire double-CD set of 21 songs, only “The Promise” feels on par quality-wise with the material that ended up on Darkness. Many of these songs touch on themes and ideas that he would go on to explore more definitively, but for the most part they lack the edge and sense of urgency that would ultimately propel his next album. The Promise maps the road Bruce Springsteen took from Born To Run to Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and while that journey is interesting for any serious fan, it’s also clear that the man at the microphone made a series of good calls along the way.

Rating: B

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