BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: TRACKS (1972-1995/1998)
CD I: 1) Mary Queen Of Arkansas; 2) It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City; 3) Growin' Up; 4) Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?; 5) Bishop Danced; 6) Santa Ana; 7) Seaside Bar Song; 8) Zero And Blind Terry; 9) Linda Let Me Be The One; 10) Thundercrack; 11) Rendezvous; 12) Give The Girl A Kiss; 13) Iceman; 14) Bring On The Night; 15) So Young And In Love; 16) Hearts Of Stone; 17) Don't Look Back.
CD II: 1) Restless Nights; 2) A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh); 3) Roulette; 4) Dollhouse; 5) Where The Bands Are; 6) Loose Ends; 7) Living On The Edge Of The World; 8) Wages Of Sin; 9) Take 'Em As They Come; 10) Be True; 11) Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own; 12) I Wanna Be With You; 13) Mary Lou; 14) Stolen Car; 15) Born In The U.S.A.; 16) Johnny Bye-Bye; 17) Shut Out The Light.
CD III: 1) Cynthia; 2) My Love Will Not Let You Down; 3) This Hard Land; 4) Frankie; 5) TV Movie; 6) Stand On It; 7) Lion's Den; 8) Car Wash; 9) Rockaway The Days; 10) Brothers Under The Bridges ('83); 11) Man At The Top; 12) Pink Cadillac; 13) Two For The Road; 14) Janey Don't You Lose Heart; 15) When You Need Me; 16) The Wish; 17) The Honeymooners; 18) Lucky Man.
CD IV: 1) Leavin' Train; 2) Seven Angels; 3) Gave It A Name; 4) Sad Eyes; 5) My Lover Man; 6) Over The Rise; 7) When The Lights Go Out; 8) Loose Change; 9) Trouble In Paradise; 10) Happy; 11) Part Man, Part Monkey; 12) Goin' Cali; 13) Back In Your Arms; 14) Brothers Under The Bridge.
Ohgodohgodohgod, how am I ever gonna do this. Okay, let's put it into personal perspective: I write a new review almost every day, and never ever would I want to defend each and every one of these texts as «insightful», «original», or even properly written (let alone the fact that I never have much time for proofreading). Even if all the records I was writing about were dazzlingly original and adventurous, I'd still end up repeating myself, falling back on stock phrases, underwhelmed on bad days, and overhyped on good days. It is a routine process, after all, and routine eats away inspiration and insight like a termite infestation.
Tracks, a monster 4-CD boxset of (mostly) previously unissued material that Bruce prepared in the late 1990s, may be a coveted treasure house for fans — but to me, it shows, first and foremost, that for Bruce, the art of «songwriting», too, was a very routine process. Of course, it's not as if he came up with a new song every day of his life, but during numerous periods in his life, he generated them with the speed of a well-written spammer script; and the sheer number of these tunes that had to be locked in the vaults, biding their time, shows that the «Springsteen formula», which we really saw originate on Darkness On The Edge Of Town and reach sexual maturity on The River, actually worked with twice, if not thrice, the efficiency that we could suspect by listening to the officially released stuff.
If you were ever worried about all that generic filler on The River; if you were ever troubled about the formulaic, simplistic approach to melodies and arrangements on Born In The USA; if you ever felt like The Boss was dumbing down and/or copy-pasting the hooks on Tunnel Of Love or Human Touch — all of your worries, troubles, and suspicions will be fully confirmed with this 60+ item set of second-hand tunes. It is instructive that out of 4 discs, 1 is given up almost entirely to outtakes from The River, 1 consists of leftovers from Born In The USA and Tunnel Of Love, and 1 is allocated to the Human Touch/Lucky Town period — which leaves only one disc to all of the Seventies, a decade when Bruce's «gigantomania» extended not just to the big sound of The E Street Band, but also covered the fields of lyrics (which were more complex), melodies (which were more jazzy and experimental), and song structures (which used to have fare more intros, codas, and internal development than any of his post-1978 stuff).
It is also precisely on that one disc, as soon as you pass a bunch of forgettable (historical interest only) early acoustic demos of well-known songs, that you get to encounter the best and least obvious material — compositions over which you can actually lament that they were taken off the respective albums for space reasons (although nowadays, with the CD format, there's always room for them if they ever want to come back). The most obvious highlight is ʽThundercrackʼ, an eight-minute epic that was probably cut from The Wild in favor of ʽRosalitaʼ, another long and even more exuberant track admiring a lady's charms, but even though ʽRosalitaʼ is faster, rowdier, and would always constitute a better turn-on for concert audiences, ʽThundercrackʼ may actually be its musical superior — especially when the band gets to the lengthy instrumental passage and starts cracking out terrific lead riffs, one after another, with occasional support from Clarence's ever-helping sax. There's some delicate subtlety and exquisite romance in this song that very rarely cropped up in Bruce's songs even in the early days, and then disappeared forever once he made the complete transition to arena-rock mode.
A much less popular, but very unusual and offbeat inclusion from those days is ʽBishop Dancedʼ, a rough-rugged folk-dance tune driven by acoustic guitar and accordeon and slightly reminiscent of The Band — the recording is live, taken from an early 1973 show at Max's Kansas City, and, judging by the audience's lively response, stuff like this could excite small crowds just as strongly as ʽBorn To Runʼ would later excite large crowds. Well, maybe not quite, but still — it's fun seeing him stringing together these off-the-wall lines of chaotic imagery, still very much influenced by Dylan but also still trying to experiment with musical form, putting his own stamp on the folk dance genre, way before turning into the predictable «working class champion».
That said, even for those early days you can easily see why stuff like ʽSanta Anaʼ or ʽZero And Blind Terryʼ were left off the final product — they're okay, but they add nothing extra to the moods and vibes that are already there. And as time goes by, these «superfluous» tunes become more and more the norm — for just about any track here past ʽThundercrackʼ you can pinpoint one or two officially released songs that said all the same things and more, or better. Do believe me when I insist that you will not discover any hidden sides of The Boss by listening to these songs, even if I also have to admit that there are almost no stylistic embarrassments or openly bad / dumb material included (well, maybe "Ricky's almost grown, Ricky wants a man of her own" comes close to dumb, but it's really just one of those Fifties-imitating nostalgic teen-pop numbers that he really had a crush on in 1980).
The relative consistency of these songs facilitates the listening process — I sat through the entire hog twice, which would be a real chore for most 4-CD collections of outtakes, but this one went surprisingly easy — however, I just don't feel like talking about the songs: whatever I'd have to say was already probably said in conjunction with some other song. To fill space, here are just some random observations: (A) I don't mind that ʽSo Young And In Loveʼ borrows the intro from ʽLawdy Miss Clawdyʼ, but how come ʽGive The Girl A Kissʼ is so blatantly influenced by Fleetwood Mac's ʽDon't Stopʼ? The intro and outro are simply lifted from that song, almost as if the man had a subconscious desire for some of that Rumours gold to rub off on himself; (B) the Nebraska-era acoustic demo of ʽBorn In The USAʼ has a vibe amusingly similar to ʽState Trooperʼ and is so totally tragically paranoid that one can only think how hilarious it would have been if Reagan's advisors got the man to consent to lend them the song — in this version; (C) ʽMy Love Will Not Let You Downʼ was one rejected song from the Born In The USA sessions that Bruce actually salvaged for his concerts, and although here it sports the ugly dated early Eighties synth sound, it is still gloriously anthemic and somewhat exceptional; (D) ʽFrankieʼ is a weird 7-minute long epic that I would have never guessed was also a Born In The USA outtake — it's a winding epic tale of Born To Run proportions (perhaps Bruce reminded himself in time that it was too melodically similar to ʽThunder Roadʼ), though, again, not vastly original.
And that's pretty much it. I would find any attempts to pick «bad» and «good» songs here so subjective and depending on such thin nuances that I'd much rather discuss angels dancing on the head of a pin. Clearly, this is first and foremost «for the fans»; Dylan's Bootleg Series, whose popularity may have inspired Bruce to follow suit, at least had a small bunch of major lost gems on each of its discs, whereas Tracks is far more evenly «mediocre» (people often complain about the last disc or the last two discs being inferior to the rest, but these are people who like to imagine a huge qualitative gap between Born To Run and Born In The USA — I am not so sure it was that huge in the first place), and simply offers «more of the same» for those who'd like to have more of the same. But it ends up putting the reviewer in a bad position, and I don't want to be one of those guys who can exude the same glowing intonations for a bunch of outtakes as they can for a genuine paradigm-shifting masterpiece.
Bottomline: I genuinely enjoyed listening to this, but no spiritual revelations ever manifested — and that is even if we define «spiritual revelation» in the broadest possible sense, like including frenetically banging my head against the wall to the bulgy sound of ʽCadillac Ranchʼ. Didn't really find no ʽCadillac Ranchesʼ here, either.