BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE PROMISE (1977-1978/2010)
1) Racing In The Street; 2) Gotta Get That Feeling; 3) Outside Looking In; 4) Someday; 5) One Way Street; 6) Because The Night; 7) Wrong Side Of The Street; 8) The Brokenhearted; 9) Rendezvous; 10) Candy's Boy; 11) Save My Love; 12) Ain't Good Enough For You; 13) Fire; 14) Spanish Eyes; 15) It's A Shame; 16) Come On (Let's Go Tonight); 17) Talk To Me; 18) The Little Things (My Baby Does); 19) Breakaway; 20) The Promise; 21) City Of Night.
And the rains keep falling and falling, and now we learn — those of us, that is, who have not been avid bootleg collectors over the years — that in compiling Tracks, Springsteen intentionally sidetracked one particular period in his history, the «murky years» in between Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town when he was busy fighting his former manager and waiting for the ban on his new records to be lifted. Indeed, of these new songs only ʽRendezvousʼ was formerly available on Tracks, and even there, only in a live version.
The wonderful thing about The Promise, for hardcore fans at least, is that it plays out like a cohesive, even conceptual, double album — The Great Lost Springsteen Album; yes, a few of the songs would later be reworked for Darkness, but they'd change significantly in the process. The not-so-wonderful thing is that his first official double album, The River, had already shown the excessive simplicity and repetitiveness of the new churn formula; and The Promise, had it been released to the general public in 1977 or 1978, would have been his first The River, albeit a little less exciting and more predictable than the 1980 album.
Just like the material on Tracks, these songs are decent and nothing more. What distinguishes them is that, oddly enough, The Promise is really just one big huge enormous tribute to the music of Bruce's teenage years — early rock'n'roll, Motown, R&B, Phil Spector's wall-of-sound, whatever. We know he'd returned to those inspirations in 1980 and then, occasionally, on later albums as well, but never did they seem to be so consistently and naggingly on his mind than in those «murky years». Perhaps he sought consolation from all his troubles in the music of the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Supremes, Ben E. King, and Buddy Holly, or maybe he thought that, since he'd already been branded «the saviour of rock'n'roll» and stuff, he'd really have to go back to his roots and save the goddamn son of a bitch a second time, this time for real. Who really knows? The thing is, say a big thank you to Mike Appel, who effectively kept this from becoming the disappointing sequel to Born To Run at the time and whose activity ultimately boxed the Boss into a much darker, and psychologically deeper corner.
Perhaps if you listen to this album in «fresh» mode, taking a long, long break from Bruce-lore, the songs will find a way to appeal to you on song-individual level. My problem here is that I find myself in a position to write about The Promise as a conclusion to a lengthy chronological run, and each of these chords, tones, words is as familiar to me now as the wallpaper staring me in the face. And I will harshly state that this is Bruce's problem, not mine — we are not guilty, after all, that ever since the man locked in on national and international fame, he'd become such a fabulously lazy songwriter, mostly exploiting familiar chord sequences and making them his own by putting them on a steady Springsteroid diet.
There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, in putting your own unique stamp on music that you have so openly derived from Phil Spector or Buddy Holly. Problems begin when you overdo it, and The Promise overdoes it with gusto: song after song, you have exactly the same vibe, and remember, back in the Sixties, you had this stuff in single format, or, at best, in relatively brief 30-to-40 minute LP format. Here, you have an hour and a half of Buddy Holly with Springsteen vocals (ʽOutside Looking Inʼ), the Ronettes with Springsteen vocals (ʽSomedayʼ), Mary Wells with Springsteen vocals (ʽOne Way Streetʼ), Roy Orbison with Springsteen vocals (ʽThe Brokenheartedʼ), the Supremes with Springsteen vocals (ʽAin't Good Enough For Youʼ — okay, actually I must admit this is the best song the Supremes never got to sing, the piano melody is so infectious), Elvis with Springsteen vocals (ʽFireʼ), Solomon Burke with Springsteen vocals (ʽSpanish Eyesʼ)... need I go on?
Had he had the opportunity to put it out in the old days, it might actually have been clipped and compacted into a shorter, more easily assimilated record (and he'd also patented the concept way before Billy Joel's An Innocent Man, although Billy's retro-tribute probably had more contrastive impact in the synth-pop days of 1983 than Bruce's would have had in 1977). But then we should also remember that in 1978, once his legal troubles were over, nobody could prevent him from releasing or at least re-recording these tracks — the fact that he chose not to do that, and came out with the much more original (and meaningful) Darkness instead shows that he was probably looking back on this stuff, already then, as a trifling business.
You can still hear shades and echoes of The Promise on Darkness — for instance, the lyrical connection between ʽRacing In The Streetʼ (also included here in an early version) and ʽDancing In The Streetsʼ becomes much more clear, since worship of Martha & The Vandellas is a totally integral part of this album; also, ʽFactoryʼ is explained as a lyrical re-write of the much more lightweight ʽCome On (Let's Go Tonight)ʼ. But there is almost nothing of Darkness on The Promise — aside from maybe the title track itself, whose first lines already suggest the whole lyrical trajectory ("Johnny works in a factory / Billy works downtown..." — kids in middle school should be given this couple of lines as part of the regular «Write your own Bruce Springsteen song!» assignment) and whose refrain makes it a logical pessimistic sequel to ʽThunder Roadʼ. However, it comes in so late in the evening that it changes nothing about the general perspective on the record as a whole.
Still, despite all the criticism, it is probably a good thing that Bruce eventually got around to cleaning up this particular shelf. After all, these are not raw demos or anything — it is a coherent, self-sufficient piece of product; it nicely plugs in the odd three-year gap in what still remains Springsteen's most creative and important decade of all; it is an undeniably generous gift to the fans; and I'm even sure it will be perfectly listenable and enjoyable for me in the future, once the «Springsteen overdose» effect wears off. One thing, however: this polished version of ʽBecause The Nightʼ still leaves me convinced that Bruce made the perfectly right decision when he donated the song to Patti Smith. He sounds pathetically constipated on these verses — I don't know, maybe there's something in them that only makes it right for female voices. Or for demon-haunted avantgarde convention-defying crazy feminist voices, for that matter.