Is Springsteen’s new album The Promise any good?

By | December 12, 2010

thepromise_4263-272x300I believe everyone should have a soundtrack to their lives. Maybe a golden  period of music continually to fall back on or perhaps a musical genre that has been a backdrop to their ageing process. For me it is an artist that has accompanied me since 1978 and continues to do so to this day. Now I don’t have much in common with the East Coast working class and so it is strange that Bruce Springsteen should be that artist, especially when his early work focused on the plight of the working man and the trials and tribulations of coming from the wrong side of the tracks. But be that as it may, for some reason his songs spoke to me 32 years ago and continue to do so today.  So in order to frame this review, I have to declare my obsession with the man, the band and the purity of what they do. Whether on record or live, Springsteen is the consummate performer whose genuineness is paramount.

His recently released album ‘The Promise’ is a collection of songs recorded when Bruce was on a temporary hiatus from recording due to management wranglings in the late 70s. He had just released Born to Run – an album that spoke of an artist in the ascendancy. Containing as it did some of the most sublime Springsteen songs ever recorded, including Jungleland and Backstreets, its follow-up was always going to be a tough call and so the hiatus gave Bruce a three year opportunity to record close to a eighty tracks to choose from, when he finally did put together its follow-up. When it eventually saw light of day, Darkness on The Edge of Town, proved to be THE Springsteen quintessential album, his seminal work, his Magnus Opus. It isn’t just me saying that, review after review will confer that this was Springsteen at his most visceral. It dripped with emotion and tightness. With that massive number of songs, Bruce could afford to be choosy. It’s not that he hasn’t scaled similar heights in some of his output since then, but not so absolutely and totally, in every single track as on ‘Darkness’.

So what has that to do with his new release? Well, those 60 or so tracks that never made it on to that album have lain unused by Bruce for all those years until now. 21 of them have been packaged up and delivered to the public on this new release, The Promise. There is a certain amount of debate within the Springsteen cognescenti as to whether some have been re-mastered or whether they are exactly as recorded over 30 years ago. You know how anal some of these debates can get, with some pointing out that certain singers are credited with participative roles while to their knowledge Bruce wasn’t using that particular musician at that exact time. Unless you are a devotee like me, I wouldn’t concern yourself with that. Just download it or put it into your CD player and transport yourself back to the late 1970s.

But the question is, is it any good? Inevitably, since the 21 tracks on it could easily have been chosen by the Boss for Darkness but weren’t, one could conclude they were not as good at the time, or didn’t fit the more darker, edgier tones he was trying to create. Darkness on the Edge of Town is my all-time favourite album of any artist, any time, any genre, period. I’ve probably listened to it once every two weeks since 1980 on average, which seems like a big number. It’s my desert-island disk, the musical backdrop to my life. Why meeting ‘her on the Strip three years ago in a Camero with this dude from LA’ (Racing in The Streets) should have any relevance to a grammar school kid from the heart of the British countryside is unfathomable frankly.  But it does. So it was with trepidation that I downloaded The Promise, hoping it wouldn’t be like a concept car, great idea but ultimately unworkable.

In order not to make a snap judgment I decided it was only fair to give the intruder a chance to prove itself. I decided to play it continuously (or should that be continually?) for a month to give it a chance. After all, in my mind it is up against the greatest album ever recorded and that’s a hard comparison. So I need to soak it in, give it time to grow, allow it the time to win me over. Above all I wanted know whether Bruce had got it right. Were the songs on Darkness the best of the output in those three years or could one of those tracks have claimed residence on that multi-million seller?

In short, no. But to be honest I am schizophrenic about it. On the one hand I am disappointed that there is not one track that I feel would have made it.  Many are clearly draft forms of tracks that appeared on DOTEOT, and for an obsessive, with deep knowledge of his output during that period, you can see the progeny of those tracks in some of the 21 here. There’s a flirtation with Roy Orbison that I don’t think works here and overuse of brass that in my opinion should be the sole preserve of Clarence Clemens and his sax. My good lady wife (a mild Bruce fan) asked me to take it off as it sounded like the sound track to Grease to her!

Even if Bruce had decided 11 tracks would be the right number and included an extra one, I don’t think any of the tracks on The Promise would have added anything. The closest is One Way Street but it lacks the edge and drive of say She’s The One. Many of the tracks are fine Springsteen recordings that would not have discredited The River, the album which followed Darkness. In fact two of the tracks Bruce donated to other artists who went on to have stellar success with them – Because The Night (Patti Smith) and Fire (The Pointer Sisters). In fact Smith’s vocals suit the song much better than Bruce and although Fire is a great song, it is a pop song first and foremost and you can see why Bruce realized it was a great song but wouldn’t fit on DOTEOT.  Back to the schizo comment for the other hand.  I am delighted that the greatest album of all time (IMHO) remains a perfect whole, unsullied by the thought that maybe for the last 30 years I have been missing out. Will The Promise be on my iTunes playlist for the next 30 years? I can categorically say no. But I know that should I still be compos mentis then, I will still be listening to Darkness.

One thing you can say about the Boss is that he knew when not to gild a lily.

Tangential Rating: 3 out 5. Better than the contemporary output from Springsteen but not a long-lost Darkness on The Edge of Town.

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