Top 25 Favorite Albums of 2010 | #2. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

#2. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

Bruce Springsteen buried a time capsule in 1978.  It wasn’t a deliberately packed container full of selected and significant content – on the contrary, it was everything he was willing to leave behind.

The fame that was foisted on Springsteen in the popular aftermath of 1975’s Born To Run had caused him to weigh his merit as a songwriter against his new status as a rock icon, and the monetary influx had created a legal rift between him and his manager, forcing a recording hiatus until a resolution could be reached.  In the interim, Springsteen pounded his pen to paper, writing a plethora of material, much of it involving themes of doubt and broken dreams.  When his studio lockout was finally lifted, he rallied the E-Street troops, and they dutifully committed a sizable chunk of the new songs to tape, a process which was expedited by recording the band playing live in the room together.  Springsteen meticulously poured over the tracks from the sessions, carefully picking the collection of songs that would best elucidate his struggles over the last three years, in addition to his visions of his own future.  Ten songs made the cut, and in the Spring of 1978,Darkness On The Edge Of Town was released.

But what of the remnants – the castaway tracks left on the mixing room floor?  While a few songs found new life in the hands of others (“Because The Night”, “Fire”, and “Rendezvous”), a handful turned up on The River, and a few more emerged later on B-Sides compilations Tracks and 18 Tracks, the vast majority were relegated to the vaults and left to collect dust for the next three decades.

Then, as the 30th anniversary of Darkness approached, those in the Springsteen camp started kicking around the idea of digging the old songs up for a reissue box set.  Problem was, 2008 was kind of a busy year for the Boss, what with the Magic tour, featuring the reunited E-Street Band, and the untimely death of founding member, organist Danny Federici.  Once  things had settled down, and Springsteen had squeezed Working On A Dream out on Magic’s heels, the lost album was ready to be compiled.  Twenty-one tracks from theDarkness sessions were selected, ordered, and packaged as The Promise, an addendum to the Darknessreissue, but also an album in and of itself.  Since the songs from The Promise had been excised in the first place due in part to their tone being at thematic odds with Darkness, and also, in some cases, for their overt pop appeal, the collection ends up congealing quite well as a two-disc LP.  For all the reasons they didn’t fit the first time around, they interlock quite nicely with each other.

But allow me to set aside all the sterile factoids about The Promise’s origi, and approach the album as Springsteen approaches his music: With swells of emotion and broad strokes of vitality…

This album is a fan’s dream come true.  As refreshing as The Rising (2002), Magic (2007), and (though, to a lesser extent) Working On A Dream (2009) were after Springsteen’s disappointing output of the 1990’s, they lacked much of the youthful energy and vibrance that made his music so engaging and significant in the first place.  Sure, he still had his songwriting chops, and the band was finally back together, but a part of every Springsteen fan longed for the gusto of “Badlands” and “Out In The Street”, or the bleeding heartland rock of “The Promised Land” or “The Ties That Bind”.  Would we ever get to hear Bruce revisit his musical youth?  Lord knows, the man can still put on a show with the best of them, sliding on his knees at 60 years old, but is it even realistic to think that he could even find a  way to stir up the same brimming, restless emotions that informed his early material?

The Promise is such a unique blessing, as it affords us the opportunity to hear a young Springsteen anew, without the Boss even having to attempt to mine his back-catalog for inspiration.  Instead, he simply digs up this time capsule of a record, and we’re immediately taken back thirty years.  “Racing In The Street (‘78)” introduces the collection, giving the Darkness track the “Thunder Road” treatment with resonating solo piano and harmonica.  The band busts in at the 1:45 mark and the wistful nostalgia rushes in so fast and hard that if you’re not careful, you might just choke on that lump in your throat.  ’Hello old friend.  I never thought I would see you again.’

Highlights are spread evenly throughout the two discs, but every single second of The Promise is vintage Springsteen.  And maybe the romance of it all ends up filtering the listening experience through the sonic equivalent of rose-colored glasses – maybe The Promise wouldn’t have held up quite as well against the rest of Springsteen’s early catalog, if it had in fact come out in 1978.  Maybe.  But I would hold up songs like “Because The Night”, “The Brokenhearted”, “Ain’t Good Enough For You”, “It’s A Shame”, “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)”, and “Talk To Me” against any of The Boss’ best songs from the rest of his discography.  This isn’t merely a collection of “also-ran” B-sides, but rather the result of a restless, prolific musical mastermind who had a concise vision in which this material, while still of the highest quality, simply didn’t fit.

The situation is truly a unique one.  Not often are we allowed to revisit the early career of a musical magnate through the guise of never-before-heard material, and when it does happen, it obviously carries with it the potential for a disappointing listening experience that can be, at the very least, less than revelatory.  Fortunately, for those of us who appreciate the magnitude of The Boss’ musical contributions over the last 40 years, The Promise is anything but a let-down, instead serving as a fresh look back into a career at a crossroads, painting the portrait of a rock stalwart poised to pave his own way.  As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and in this case, Springsteen’s discard pile has now been unearthed and polished, and it sure sounds a lot like a buried treasure, from which we’re all lucky enough to share the spoils.

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