Springsteen outlines an alternate reality on 'The Promise'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The sessions that produced 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, the record many believe to be Bruce Springsteen’s hallmark, are rife with legend and myth. Springsteen, back in the studio after three years of legal wrangling kept him from recording, wrote furiously. By some estimations, he was writing and recording four songs for every one that he would include on the finished product.
Band members, engineers and, eventually, bootleggers and fans would speak in slack-jawed wonder of this era. He was throwing away songs that others would only dream of writing, sending sure-fire hits off to the archives without blinking. The finished record is rightly regarded as a triumph but, those in the know would say, you wouldn’t believe what he left on the cutting room floor.
Of course, with the release of The Promise, those songs are given an official airing, settling up next to the rest of Springsteen’s catalog, the castaways brought home and welcomed back to the family. And through two discs and 22 tracks, the mystery fades away and the power of the songs shine through. Where Darkness was dour, pessimistic and frightfully mature, The Promise retains some of Springsteen’s early optimism, feeling like a more natural bridge from his first three albums to the dark character studies he was about to create lyrically.
Some of the tracks have long-since ascended past legendary status. "Because the Night" was a hit for Patti Smith, and Springsteen released his own blazing version on Live/1975-85. “Fire” became a hit for the Pointer Sisters, and earned its own reputation as a Springsteen warhorse in the same era.
A few of the numbers are alternate versions of songs that would find a home on Darkness or later Springsteen records. “Racing in the Street (’78)” takes on a more positive tone than its Darkness brother. No longer is it a tale of solemn resignation; it’s now a call to arms, a life-affirming shout of recognition. “Candy’s Boy,” an early version of “Candy’s Room,” shows the narrator as one who has already hooked onto Candy, rather than longing for next chance. Some tracks just weren’t quite ready yet, as in “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” which was reborn as “Factory” on the finished product, or “Rendezvous,” which was held over for his next record, The River.
The title track offers up some surprises as well. “The Promise” first surfaced as a solo piano track, rerecorded in the late-90s for Springsteen’s box set sampler, 18 Tracks. Here, minus any significant lyric changes, it takes on a slightly more positive tilt. But its message is still one of despair, and that’s where “The Promise” differs from most of the other tracks on the collection. Many of the down numbers have to do with a relationship; the hopelessness here has to do with life and a lack of meaningful direction. It’s likely the only song that could have comfortably fit on Darkness.
But here’s where this collection works so well — listening to these two discs, whether in the car, at work, or just on in room, it feels like a finished product. With the most desperate songs earmarked for the masterpiece that was Darkness, what remains is a hopeful look at American life, though one that is mostly absent of nostalgia. These songs work together to create a unified feeling, one that holds over a bit from Born to Run — wary of the world and its trappings, but still optimistic that the world is sitting on a string.
It’s not hard to envision, to pick one, “Save My Love” having been a hit in at the dawn of the '80s, with his reassuring call: “Though we’re far apart tonight, I’ll save my love for you.” Acknowledging difficulty while looking ahead to glory was a hallmark of Springsteen’s biggest hits, from “Born to Run” right up through “The Rising.” Beyond “Badlands,” that would not have suited Darkness.
It suits The Promise, though. Perhaps in an alternate reality, we would be sitting here discussing The Promise as the record that launched Springsteen to national reknown, while the dark, mature songs of Darkness were issued three decades later as a bonus disc in a box set, curiously studied as Springsteen’s path down the road less traveled.
History proved Springsteen correct. Darkness on the Edge of Town was the record he needed to release after three years in the wilderness, and it set up the next phase of his career beautifully. And in releasing all the gems that weren’t quite right for the time, history has proven him right again. The Promise is a wonderful addition to the Springsteen cannon. Legend and myth are all well and good, but there’s no substitute for the real thing.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org