Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Promise Has Not Been Broken

Bruce Springsteen--"Cindy" (mp3)

Forget the bleakness of the photos that go with the CD; those are better suited to Darkness On The Edge of Town.

As I told a friend, when I first listened to The Promise, Springsteen's release of leftover material from Darkness, I felt like I had stepped into a parallel universe. I felt the same way when Tracks was released, only moreso. It was kind of like being sucked into the world of the great show Fringe, where there's another world that coexists with ours, only everything is slightly different. It was a good place to be.

I've been through The Promise several times. Here's what I think I've learned: there could have been a different Springsteen than the one we got.

Actually, I first got an inkling of that when we watched the making of Darkness movie at Troutking's house a few weeks ago. It was during that film that Steve Van Zandt declared that Springsteen could have been one of the great pop songwriters. When he first says it, you kind of go, yeah, maybe. Not sold on that claim.

But then you think about it and you realize that bands as diverse Mannfred Man, The Pointer Sisters, Greg Kihn, Aretha Franklin, Gary U.S. Bonds, The Hollies, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes all had hits from remakes and castoff songs of Bruce's.

And it's that last band, Southside Johnny and the boys, that actually gives us the best context for The Promise. Once Springsteen decided he wanted Darkness to be working class social commentary, he chucked the party songs. So many of the songs have horn arrangements and sentiments that I, an avowed Southside fan, can hear Johnny singing instead of Bruce. And, in one case, "Talk To Me," Johnny did sing the song and sang it better than Springsteen does here. I'm surprised he didn't also record "The Little Things My Baby Does" or "Wrong Side Of The Street."

For the best of The Promise could be a terrific party album. There are plenty of uptempo songs about love lost and found, a wealth of great sax, memorable guitar signatures, and wonderful singing. Most of The Promise is the Springsteen album where you can dance to both the words and the music.

Back in college, during senior year, there were many a night when we would drink a few beers and smoke a little something and then pull out the Springsteen bootlegs from the '78 Darkness tour and shout the lyrics out the window. What surprises me, as I look back on it, is how we missed out on the sex. Springsteen is nothing, if not highly-sexual music, but back then, we got caught up in the songs' anthemic qualities. And nobody wants to screw to an anthem--they want to screw to Marvin Gaye or Frank Sinatra. When you get caught up in the anthem, you get caught up in the plight, you think, hey, he's singing about me, you relate more to "Sometimes I feel so weak that I wanna explode" than you to do "I go drivin' deep into the light in Candy's eyes." But that was Darkness. With few exceptions, The Promise is about women.

And once you get familiar with it, The Promise is pretty spectacular. It has to have that qualifier because it has songs we are already familiar with, sometimes in lesser versions, and lyrics we already know, ultimately put to better use. But it's a fascinating look at a songwriter in transition. Some of the songs sound pre-Born To Run, some, like "Save My Love," could fit comfortably on Magic. And like Tracks, the takeaway here is that Springsteen is an even more expansive songwriter than we knew--more playful, more fun, and with a greater vocal range. Songs like "Outside Looking In," with its Buddy Holly influence, and the intimate "City of Night" show us the rocker who hadn't yet decided that he needed to be an icon.

To me, the great irony of the set is the title track itself. I heard Springsteen play "The Promise" in Philadelphia during his '76 tour. He played it pretty much alone at the piano. That is the way it is presented on Tracks. That is the way it sounds best. The version here, a mid-tempo full band rocker, loses the personal betrayal that inspired the song when first written. It's a great transitional song, because it starts out with Springsteen cycling through the situations of various characters, but it quickly settles on the narrator. And that's where the song should center.

Much as I love Neil Young, his "archives," at least so far, have not delivered the kind of powerful body of work that Springsteen has now unleashed twice. They say you can't go home again, but Bruce Springsteen continues to allow his fans to travel back in time and not repeat the past, but understand it more fully.

Note: "Cindy" is not off of The Promise; instead it is an outtake from The River and, perhaps, suggests the promise of another set of songs from Springsteen that we haven't heard.


troutking said...

Great post!

1. I think Southside DID record Wrong Side of the Street, only it was the Little Steven rewrite called Love on the Wrong Side of Town!

2. Really, there are a lot of Springsteens he could have chosen to be if he wanted to keep doing the same thing---the Van Morrison/jazz/R&B man from Wild and the Innocent, the anthem meets Phil Spector from Born to Run, the pop tunesmith from The Promise/The River, the folkie of Nebraska/Tom Joad, etc, etc. The amazing thing is that they're all different and they're all great and he doesn't mind throwing away or giving away songs other performers would die to release.

3. Neil's archives might not be that great but his new song Whip Your Hair Around is awesome.


Anonymous said...

check out the great companion book to Springsteen's new Darkness box set:

troutking said...

Also, you should probably give Working On A Dream another chance since many of the songs on there (Life Itself, Kingdom of Days, Surprise Surprise, What Love Can Do, This Life) would not seem out of place on The Promise.