In 1978, Bruce Springsteen famously mined the darkness on the edge of town, but it was unknown until recently that he considered living in the light of those same New Jersey streets. Flush with the success of Born to Run but drained from a prolonged battle with his former manager, Springsteen considered all avenues in creating the follow-up to the album that changed everything. And much like the eventually-resulting Darkness on the Edge of Town upped the ante from that 1975 landmark, the newly-released The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story (Columbia 88697 76525-2/88697 78230-2) dramatically improves on the earlier album’s 2005 anniversary box set. Let me put it this way: if I were conducting a class on Springsteen, as some forward-thinking institutions indeed have, The Promise would be a core textbook. And unlike most textbooks, it doubles as a spiral-bound notebook…
Housed in a sturdy slipcase based on the original Darkness LP art, The Promise box set contains three CDs and three Blu-Rays or DVDs in a replica of Springsteen’s tattered, blue Eagle notebook in which he created the songs known so well today. Each disc is in its own mini-LP jacket with protective sleeve, stored in slits on thick cardboard pages. It’s hard to imagine anybody disappointed with this packaging, which may be a high point for Columbia’s Legacy label; it offers a unique and immersive context for the music contained within. It’s a major, and worthwhile, undertaking to digest everything available here. Springsteen’s handwriting isn’t always the most legible, but there’s something remarkable about being able to read draft upon draft of lyrics as well as assorted thoughts on the album’s artwork, arrangements, running order and just about everything else. Photographs, film negatives, period ads and articles also appear.
This is the kind of snapshot into an artist’s process that is rarely afforded a listener, especially by an artist such as Springsteen, who has eschewed essays of critical analysis in his past reissues. The treasures are many to behold; among the most fascinating pages is a list of songs favored by Springsteen, many of which were covered by the E Street Band. These range from a large number of Buddy Holly songs to Goffin and King’s “Goin’ Back,” Peter and Gordon’s “I Go to Pieces,” Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room,” Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” and the Crystals’ “Then She [sic] Kissed Me.” This page alone offers countless insights into the songs that form the centerpiece of this box, the two-CD set of (mostly) Darkness outtakes entitled The Promise, and now being rightfully trumpeted as an addition to Springsteen’s core catalogue, not just a mere rarities collection. It is the Boss’ great lost album, even if nobody (including him) knew it existed…hit the jump to read all about it!
Darkness ended three years of silence from Bruce Springsteen and his travelling troupe of musicians including Roy Bittan (piano), Clarence Clemons (saxophone/percussion), Danny Federici (organ/glockenspiel), Garry Tallent (bass), Steven Van Zandt (guitar/vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums). Especially considered alongside the triumphant Born to Run, it was a tougher, altogether more aggressive LP. While an unwavering sense of melody and songwriting know-how still informed tracks like “Badlands” and “Prove It All Night,” a sobering, even tragic tone dominated. In a 1998 essay reproduced in the notebook’s inside front cover, Springsteen mentions the influences that created Darkness: country music, film noir. He desired a “leaner,” “less grand” sound than on Born to Run. Not that he abandoned grandiosity altogether; as he points out, even “the [song] titles were big: ‘Adam Raised a Cain.’ ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ ‘Racing in the Streets.'” The final album even today isn’t an easy listen, but it’s a fully engaging, restless one. “Adam Raised a Cain” still sears, while “Candy’s Room” is a vivid portrait of lust whose subject is still up for debate. Darkness showed that one could marry hard rock with piano and saxophone, and it’s been remastered in 2010 by Bob Ludwig and is unfortunately not available on its own, as The Promise is. As so often seems to happen these days, there are as-yet-unanswered questions of possible technical glitches and tape dropouts (just do a quick Google search) but that said, the remaster largely sounds detailed, rich and vibrant.
Opposite the 1998 essay is a present-day consideration of the songs Springsteen left behind in creating the emotionally-charged original LP. It’s no secret that the songwriter has always been prolific. If the songs that eventually comprised Darkness were the sound of Springsteen exorcising his demons, those on The Promise sound like a writer celebrating his heroes while finding, and honing, his voice. (He name-checks Leiber and Stoller, Greenwich and Barry, Goffin and King, and Mann and Weil as inspirations in this essay.) In assembling Darkness, Springsteen cut many of the songs wearing the Spector, Orbison and Brill Building influences on their sleeves. The songs weren’t axed for any lack of quality, but rather because the artist desired not to be pegged as a revivalist, especially only a decade after those sounds ruled the airwaves. These are the songs that Springsteen and co-producer Jon Landau have assembled as The Promise.
What Bruce Springsteen may not have realized – no, could not have realized – is that he, and the E Street Band, were adopting a sound and transcending it at the same time, working within the confines of a familiar form and bringing something wholly unique to it. All hyperbole aside (Springsteen never felt comfortable with the record label and the media pegging him as “the future of rock and roll” whether it was true or not), he arguably synthesized the old and the new of American pop-rock much as Bob Dylan did with folk or Stephen Sondheim did with the Broadway showtune. The Promise can be legitimately viewed as the light to the bleak Darkness. These songs – and sounds – are big, bold, bright and utterly captivating.
Ironically, the majestic title track to The Promise may be the song that would have fit most naturally in the original Darkness lineup. “The Promise” had already been released in a version recorded in 1999 on that year’s 18 Tracks compilation (another handful of Darkness outtakes appeared on the original Tracks box set, as well), but is the centerpiece here. It’s an archetypal Springsteen rumination on lost hopes and lingering regrets: “All my life I fought this fight/The fight that no man can ever win/Every day, it just gets harder to live/This dream I’m believing in/Thunder Road, baby, you were so right/Thunder Road, there’s something dyin’/Down on the highway tonight.”
In director Thom Zimny’s terrific, revealing documentary that is included in the box set, E Street guitarist and Underground Garage guru Steven Van Zandt comments that Springsteen could have been a pure pop songwriter had he desired to take that route. The bulk of the songs on The Promise prove that, over and over again, with blissful, often euphoric, results.
While many of these tracks are party songs, the poetry is unmistakably Springsteen, the music distinctly from E Street, and the craft of the highest caliber. After an early take of “Racing in the Street” in which the lyrical changes are immediately recognizable (the ’69 Chevy began life as a ’32 Ford!), the familiar Phil Spector sound kicks into high gear on the spirited “Gotta Get That Feeling.” The Jack Nitzsche-styled arrangements hit their apex on the sweeping ballad “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” not the Diana Ross and The Supremes song, but a tidal wave of hope and optimism wrapped in the Wall of Sound; I practically had my cell phone raised while listening. Two more infectious anthems are “Outside Looking In,” with its big Clarence Clemons sax break, and “Talk to Me” (“Until the night’s over…”) with the whole band firing on all cylinders; these sparkling songs could have been/might just be bona fide classics. (“Talk to Me” actually had its first go-round performed by Southside Johnny and the Jukes.) The ghost of Doc Pomus, also memorably conjured up by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby on their new Lonely Avenue album, haunts the Latin-flecked “The Brokenhearted,” with its undercurrent of sadness. Listening to these songs, it’s clear that the prodigiously-talented young songwriter took all of his influences, put them in a blender and came up with a style that moved beyond mimicry or pastiche, although at the time, he may have felt they were too close for comfort as he desired to establish himself.
“Ain’t I Good Enough For You” is a hand-clapping, foot-stomping piano-driven romp with “Whoa-oa-oa-oa” backing vocals; it’s cut from the same cloth as “This Little Girl,” written by Springsteen for Gary U.S. Bonds and a classic barroom sing-along. The lyrical content is familiar, a guy trying to change for his hard-to-please girl. The Four Seasons-style themes recur time and again, but what the songwriter did with hoary topics like girls, cars, lust and love was different, as Springsteen’s poetic, personal sensibility (he admits in the liner notes that “Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical”) was all his own. I hear a certain amount of freedom in the release of these early, wonderfully uninhibited songs; by no coincidence, freedom is another recurring theme in Springsteen’s canon.
Longtime fans will enjoy the variant “Racing” and “Candy’s Boy,” an early version of Darkness‘ poignant “Candy’s Room,” and the versions of songs Springsteen gave away to others, like “Rendezvous,” “Because the Night” (co-written with Patti Smith) and “Fire.” These aren’t the most essential songs on The Promise, but add to the feeling that the set is a kind of alternate-reality Springsteen LP. Even if the artist had released these songs post-Born to Run, I suspect that Darkness would have emerged sooner rather than later. The anguished howl of Darkness‘ “Something in the Night” or the pensive bleakness of the title track had to have bubbled to the surface. But a great song is a great song; even if Darkness was the right choice for the time, The Promise‘s pop songs are equally valid and just as exhilarating.
Some of the tracks have been embellished and overdubbed by Springsteen, although it hasn’t been revealed to what extent, and quite frankly, it doesn’t even matter. Modern-day E Street members Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell make appearances on “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” and “Breakaway.” Springsteen has newly recorded Disc 2’s lead track, “Save My Love” (written in 1977) which was also released as an indie store exclusive 7-inch single (Columbia 88697 81140-7) for Black Friday with “Because the Night” as its B-side.
Rounding out the package are two more Blu-Rays/DVDs. The first of these discs offers two programs, a 2009 performance of the album filmed in Asbury Park’s historic Paramount Theatre , and the “Thrill Hill Vault,” with archival videos including full versions of clips seen in the documentary film. The second disc gives us a three-hour live concert from Houston in 1978, known as the “Bootleg: House Cut.” It’s not in the most stellar quality, and video footage just can’t capture the unbridled energy of the performer during this peak period. But it’s an invaluable document and manna for those who were there, and those of us who weren’t and wish we were.
Many quarters in the media have speculated that The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story is some kind of last hurrah for physical media and packaging. I’d prefer to think that it could contribute to the dawn of a golden era in which the record labels realize that there is a dedicated market and audience for these kinds of sets. Carefully-curated box sets can allow for total immersion and exploration in the music. Yes, the songs on The Promise will hold up on vinyl, CD, MP3, Apple Lossless, Blu-Ray or whatever other format comes along. But the experience isn’t complete without the entire set, which by the way, is priced expensively but not stratospherically. (With a little bargain hunting, it can be had for $70-90, and it’s worth every penny.) The Promise, like Rhino Handmade’s lavish set devoted to the Monkees’ Head, raises the bar. It doesn’t feel like a last hurrah, but more like a triumphant victory lap. Springsteen has always been loath to repeat himself, hence why The Promise‘s spectacular pop confections were initially shelved. But c’mon, Boss, this Jersey boy (full disclosure!) is waiting for the next anniversary set, in whatever form it takes.