Music Reviews
The Promise

Bruce Springsteen The Promise

(Columbia) Rating - 8/10

All old Springsteen junkies like myself have (or had until married life relegated it to some netherworld) a shoebox full of cassette tapes with handwritten labels like “Hammond Audition”, “Live in Maryland 78” and “Darkness Outtakes”.  Bruce has to be one of the most bootlegged artists in history, if only due to his penchant to over-record for sessions and then whittle down to some core that evokes a set of related ideas, which basically means that at any time, and for any given record, a completely different story might have emerged.  The mood these choices reflect can be as disparate as the twin records Nebraska and Born in the USA, with much of the material written coincidentally but with treatment poles apart; one the most insular album he ever made, the other the most expansive. 

Listening to The Promise, the question that keeps popping up in my brain is how Springsteen’s career would have evolved if he had taken a more Beatle-esque approach to record making, ie, write a bunch of songs and release the best ones, no matter what they’re about.  One thing this set makes clear is that (as fanatics already knew) Bruce had a lot of strong material to choose from in picking his final tracklist for what was to become Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Not only do we have here long cherished treasures like The Promise, Because the Night, Fire and Rendezvous, we also get little known or, to my ears anyway, unheard gems like Save My Love, The Wrong Side if the Street and Spanish Eyes, with its lilting refrain and lyrics that would later appear on I’m on Fire.  We also get a wonderful period piece like Talk to Me, which reveals how completely Bruce had internalized the songwriting mode of the early 60s.  And then there’s the love song twist on Factory called The Way, which has always been a favorite of mine among unreleased tracks, a song that perfectly encapsulates Springsteen’s facility with balancing tenderness and drama.

As one might expect from a two disc set of what are essentially rejected songs, there are a few tunes that show Bruce on autopilot, giving his usual 110% to less inspired, workmanlike material.  But it’s hard to complain when there’s so much great stuff here presented in pristine studio form for the first time.  Considering there’s enough grade A quality beef here to make a terrific alternate album, we are left wondering what might have been.  What if Bruce had scored two top ten hits in 1978 with Because the Night and Fire, rather than Patti Smith and the Pointer Sisters?  Springsteen has always been concerned with the importance of choices and their consequences and this is no accident.  His career has followed a deliberate path with him pausing and considering before each fork in the road.  Here is the road not taken.  Anyone who has followed him along this road, or is just discovering it now, needs to hear it.