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Listening to these readymade paeans to the golden age of AM radio one after another, you realize why they didn’t fit on Darkness. They belong to another album altogether—this one.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN KEEPS HIS PROMISE, 32 YEARS LATER

In Hindsight, It Boggles the Mind That the 27-Year-Old Artist Was Willing to Simply Abandon a Musical Treasure Trove More Bountiful Than the Entire Careers of Most Artists
By Bud Scoppa

In 1978, Bruce Springsteen finally broke the three-year silence that had followed the artistic and commercial triumph Born to Run by releasing that album’s polar opposite—the stark, unsettled Darkness on the Edge of Town. The long break hadn’t been by choice. In July of ’76, nine months after the release of Born to Run, Springsteen had entered into what would turn into a prolonged legal battle with his former manager Mike Appel. First, he filed suit against Appel to get back the rights to his songs, which he’d naively signed away years earlier. Two days later, Appel filed a countersuit in an attempt to block Springsteen from recording with his present manager and prospective co-producer, Jon Landau. It took just under a year of acrimonious negotiations—and presumably a king’s ransom—for Bruce to get his catalog back in an out-of-court settlement. Only then, in June of 1977, was he free to move on.

And move on he did, with gusto. Springsteen, the E Street Band, Landau and engineer Jimmy Iovine spent the better part of a year holed up in New York’s Record Plant, where most of Born To Run had been cut, and painstakingly crafted tracks, more than 70 in all. The Boss chose his song candidates from the mountain of material he’d come up with hanging out on his Holmdel, N.J., farm during his forced exile. The resulting recordings drew from the artist’s lifelong love affair with Top 40 radio, though a number of the lyrics were somber, if life-affirming, meditations on where he’d come from and where he might be headed. “To write these songs, I had to disregard my own mutation,” he explains in Thom Zimny’s gripping 90-minute documentary The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story. “That was the cloud of success.” Eventually, he settled on the 10 that would comprise Darkness. In rock annals, only Neil Young has proved to be capable of the radical move Springsteen made in 1978, shelving a treasure trove of glorious music out of sheer artistic determination—some might call it perverse stubbornness.

The songs that made the album were very much of a piece. Springsteen shifted his setting from the mythopoetic America of the earlier records to the dreary, dead-end world Americans were actually living in. He wrote the lyrics as “a reaction to my own good fortune” and to satisfy “a sense of accountability to people I'd grown up alongside,” he explains as the narrator of his own story in the documentary, which is included in the boxset of the same title, These lyrics unflinchingly portray Springsteen’s internal turmoil as his newfound celebrity removed him from the blue-collar people and decaying beach towns that had formed him.

But at the same time, Darkness, which took shape in the thrall of the punk movement, “was my samurai record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble,” as he writes in the preface to the lavish 80-page spiral notebook loaded with handwritten lists and photos that is the centerpiece of the deluxe coffee-table version of The Promise. He eagerly scooped up British punk singles as they arrived in his favorite New York City record store, and their brutal energy came to bear on the intense severity of Darkness, “the players fighting for space,” as Chuck Plotkin, who mixed the record with Iovine, puts it in the doc. The juxtaposition of lyrics wrestling with hard truths in hardscrabble anthems like “Racing in the Street,” “Badlands” and “Prove It All Night” shaped Springsteen’s approach on subsequent works both widescreen (The River) and intimate (Nebraska). “By the end of Darkness, I’d found my adult voice,” he writes.

Of the 60-plus songs he’d set aside, deeming them thematically and musically outside the rigid constraints of Darkness, a handful saw the light of day, most famously Patti Smith’s Iovine-produced carbon-copy cover of “Because the Night” and the Pointer Sisters’ groove-based take on Bruce’s Elvis-evoking “Fire,” both of them major hits, as the originals undoubtedly would’ve been. Bruce gave fellow Asbury Park native Southside Johnny the soulful “Talk to Me” and “Hearts of Stone.” Among the original recordings, five Darkness outtakes, including “Rendezvous” (included on The Promise) and “Hearts of Stone,” wound up on the 1998 rarities boxset Tracks, and “The Promise” found its way onto the 1999 collection 18 Tracks. Practically everything else has remained hidden—until now.

Inside the notebook-sized boxset are the digitally remastered original album on one CD, with the 21 outtakes, all but “The Promise” and “Rendezvous” previously unreleased, spread over two more discs. It also contains the Zimny doc on one DVD, plus two more boasting hours of studio and live footage, including the house video feed of a sprawling 26-song show from Houston in 1978, and a 2009 performance of Darkness from Asbury Park.

While completists will find the boxset essential, the 21 unearthed songs, available separately as a two-CD set, are the mother lode. They comprise The Promise, the Great Lost Springsteen Album, and a massive one at that, containing just under 90 minutes of music. Though recorded during the same extended sessions as the Darkness set, this archival album is the polar opposite of its fraternal twin—big, bold, vibrantly colored and laced with sweeping chorus hooks and towering middle eights. In a word, it’s spectacular. “It was not a modest undertaking; we set our sights big,” Springsteen told interviewer Ed Norton during the film’s September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Indeed, an epic sense of scale resounds throughout the songs of The Promise, even as it was stripped away to reveal Darkness.

If Bruce’s visceral guitar work provided Darkness with its instrumental focal point, the tracks of The Promise, newly mixed by Springsteen mainstay Bob Clearmountain, ring with echo, pumping up Max Weinberg’s pummeling snare and monstrous kick, and Roy Bittan’s shimmering piano runs. The set opens with a discarded version of “Racing in the Street” that explodes into color, in contrast to the bleached-out black-and-white of the take that appears on Darkness, the band firing on all cylinders. The record then powers into “Gotta Get That Feeling,” a kitchen-sink opus that seems to contain the entire contents of a mid-’60s jukebox, from Ben E. King to Jay & the Americans, in its 3:20 duration. The track has everything: hyperactive drum rolls, gleaming Latin horns, greasy sax solo, call-and-response backing vocals, all of it topped off by a breathtaking modulation into the final chorus.

That’s the first of a parade of architecturally constructed, masterfully executed, endlessly catchy tunes—“Outside Looking In,” with its racing “Peggy Sue” beat; the finger-snapping “Wrong Side of the Street”; big ballads like “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” with what sounds like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir further ramping up the grandeur of Bruce’s chest-pumping, Orbisonian lead vocal; and, of course, the original “Because the Night.” You get the feeling Springsteen could knock off these readymade paeans to the golden age of AM radio ad infinitum. Listening to them one after another, you realize why they didn’t fit on Darkness. They belong to another album altogether—this one. Interestingly, just as the pulsing, impassioned “Candy’s Room” pulls against the rest of the Darkness tracks, its forerunner, the downbeat ballad “Candy’s Boy,” which closes the first CD, stands in stark contrast to its robust mates on The Promise.

The second disc begins as thrillingly as the first, with “Save My Love,” which, like “Gotta Get That Feeling,” “Because the Night” and “Fire,” is an absolute killer woulda-been/shoulda-been Top 40 smash. Bruce missed the chance at another hit cover song with “Spanish Eyes,” which would’ve been a perfect fit for Mink DeVille. A few songs later, we get the first hint of the direction Springsteen would soon take; it comes in the dirge-like form of “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” with its weeping country fiddle and lyrical reference to Elvis’ death. After the Spector-scaled set piece “The Little Things (My Baby Does),” darkness begins closing, but not before we experience a panoramic sunset with the Technicolor ballad “Breakaway,” set off by summery, sha-la-la backing vocals, leading into the orchestrated, gorgeously bittersweet “The Promise,” the album’s true climax, followed by the subdued coda, “City of the Night.”

In their mind-blowing musical richness and towering ambition, these 21 tracks stand as a captivating testament to Bruce’s mission statement, which he recounts early in the film: “More than rich, more than famous, more than happy, I wanted to be great.” Mission accomplished. This is a musical time capsule sealed in 1978 and ripped open in 2010, revealing a lost masterpiece. The Promise would have fit perfectly between Born to Run and Darkness, as Bruce points out. Had it come out then, it surely would have been regarded not just as a classic, but one that provides a fully realized bridge between the two landmark albums that sandwich it. At long last seeing the light of day 32 years hence, The Promise improbably yet emphatically enriches the history of a supreme artist and a storied era. What might have been now is, in all its overarching splendor.

(An edited version of this piece appears in the December issue of Uncut.)

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