[16 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Wiz-bang Gang. Shut down strangers. Hot rod angels. Madman drummers. Bummers. Indians in the summer. Springsteen’s songs have no shortage of castaways, outliers, vagrants, people on the run. But most of the time these wanderers are banded together in loosely assembled groups, given punchy names by the Boss, and made to speed or stumble or break down all over his albums.
Darkness on the Edge of Town may have been short on group names—save those hot rod angels from “Racing in the Streets”—but its characters still wandered the musical landscape, trying to break through or come to terms with something far bigger than themselves. The trudge of life in a place you want to leave (“Badlands”), a lineage of suffering (“Adam Raised a Cain”), the work-a-day week (“Factory”), even the impossible darkness of the night itself (“Something in the Night”)—it was all there to fear, to battle against, to defeat in some small way. The E Street band, behind Springsteen, matched the album’s cosmic worry with its own vacation in the stratosphere. These songs were big—arguably bigger than the anthems on Born to Run—but unafraid to show the spores of rust under the racing stripes. They were sleek, but they were beautifully weary.
The Promise, however, the new two-disc collection of outtakes from the Darkness sessions, is another beast entirely. In fact, maybe it’s not a beast. What it is is something far more intimate than Darkness, but also more playful. That big world bearing down on Springsteen and his speakers seems to have abated on these songs, leaving the Boss to pine over lost love. These are very much songs about “her” and “me”, and not very much about “us”, and while these 22 tracks might not catch the same fire Darkness did, there is still a striking cohesion and consistency to this collection.
There are alternate takes of tracks, and the best of them is “Racing in the Streets”. A bit dustier than its album version, this one feels more like a stomping full band than the spacious, piano-y cut that made Darkness, and the buzzing intensity here might actually outdo the original. Elsewhere, “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” is an early take on “Factory” with wholly different lyrics. The feel, however, remains pretty much the same with discussion of men walking around “with death in their eyes”, and people headed to a party down the road to escape, if for a night.
The Promise feels, despite those inclusions, like a totally separate entity from Darkness. It has the same soul underpinnings as the record that rose out of it, but there’s more genre-hopping here, and certainly a lighter tone overall. Without the world bearing down, the land still plays a key role in these songs, but it’s the speaker’s heart—young and raw as it is—that gets an intimate, almost insular, focus in these tracks.
Take “Outside Looking In”, for example. Springsteen shouts out the songs with his typical blue-collar vitriol, but the sentiment—“I’m on the outside looking in”—feels more isolated and self-pitying than most of his early work. The sad-sack persona plays here, though, as it does in the heartbroken turns like “One Way Street” or, well, “The Brokenhearted”. Similarly, an early take on “Candy’s Room” (here called “Candy’s Boy”) lacks the eccentric, troubled speak-singing of the original version, instead playing out here in shimmering, dreamy pop.
“Pop”. Maybe that’s the word for what’s going on in The Promise. The band tightens up and avoids the atmosphere it usually builds for true, and vibrant, takes on established pop and soul modes. “Ain’t Good Enough for You” plays like a Sam Cooke cover, while “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” could be a Frankie Valle 45, if it were slowed to 33 1/3 speed. The band’s ability to seamlessly execute these sounds shows their impressive range. The best moments here, though, still imbue the track with something freshly theirs—like the soft crunch of the Redding-cum-E-Street shuffle of “Fire”.
The true standouts on The Promise, however, bridge that gap between those pop experiments and the sonic heft of Darkness. “Because the Night”—later made famous by Patti Smith—is the most fiery performance here, matching the band’s late-70’s muscle with this newer heartache. The title track matches Darkness‘s moody size blow for blow, and tells a beautiful trademark Springsteen tale of hard work and lost dreams.
That song also makes a case for exactly why these songs didn’t make Darkness. The Promise is surely a consistently solid listen all the way through—with flashes of brilliance that give us a new angle on this time in the band’s history. In comparison to what did get released back in 1978, though, these songs don’t seem to have quite as much at stake, and the smaller scope and mid-tempo churn of these songs bears that out. In the end, The Promise hits a ceiling just below what you’d call essential listening, but it’s still more than just a fan-only release. These 22 songs show a band at the height of their powers stretching out and trying new things, indulging in their musical loves to bright and catchy results. But we’ve come to know that band and how good they can be, so while to hear them come back from that month in the stratosphere is a refreshing change of pace, The Promise still falls a notch below the band’s best work.