Bruce Springsteen's 'The Promise': A Look Back to Unreleased Tracks from 1978
Now, let me preface by saying that while I greatly respect Bruce Springsteen's music, I've never been a big fan. His contrived gritty/gruff vocals tend to grate on me, and every song is basically a variation of "Bobby's got a car/he drives all night/he's got to leave town." In essence, I like the idea of Bruce and his music more than I actually like listening to the music itself.
However, nothing is more quintessentially American in character at this late great date in the history of rock 'n roll than Bruce himself. I was abolutely knocked-out/floored by his 2006 release, The Seeger Sessions, in which he vamped-up old Woody Guthrie songs with imaginative ragtime arrangements. Every one of those songs sounded like a newly discovered gospel singalong. I just couldn't stop listening to the album.
Possibly Bruce's work on The Seeger Sessions, as well as his show-stopping finale at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert, have put me in a more Bruce-friendly state of mind. But I recently delved into The Promise-- the new 2-CD set of outtakes from Bruce's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town-- and I have to tell you, it's good.
Darkness is an interesting album because it came about after a protracted legal battle, when Springsteen was blocked from recording new material. As a result, when he finally started recording, he amassed (by his own account) enough material for four albums. The Promise offers at least two albums' worth of the resulting, unreleased tracks. And what a fascinating document it is.
I'm generally a fan of less-produced material. I don't like slick studio work. Fortunately, Bruce has never been a diamond-perfect studio artist. But what's cool about the songs on The Promise is that they're mostly complete tracks, recorded with an enthusiastic, chomping-at-the-bit band, and sound live and raw. Somehow, though, they were deemed unsuitable for the eventual Darkness album.
In some cases, it's possible that Bruce thought some of the songs were too commercial, or too catchy. That would be the only explanation why such a raw gem as "Ain't Good Enough For You" was never released. It's a sparkling, incredibly melodic, Motown-esque tune. Or maybe some of the songs, like "The Little Things (My Baby Does)," were too blatantly romantic...
But what jumps out of these previously unheard songs is a certain time capsule snapshot of an America that is fast fading. The title track of "The Promise" starts out with lyrics of "Johnny works in a factory/and Billy works downtown." How ironically quaint that the factory jobs on which Bruce's fabled song characters (along with his real-life contemporaries) depended on to earn a living are now disappearing rapidly. Outsourcing and job flight were just a twinge of a worrisonme future reality in the late-1970's, when U.S. manufacturing employment peaked at a post-WWII high of roughly 19 million.
Girls, cars, and factories were the stuff of Springsteen songs, and no one crystallized that essence better. But the reason I may find myself so taken with The Promise is that, listening to it 30+ years later, I sense a hint of very prescient foreboding in the songs. Great art may mirror its time, but it also attains a timeless quality to transcend its time. Throughout the 2-CD set, there are frequent references to "dead ends" and "drifting." Somehow, it just feels like Bruce was channeling a grey future-- one wherein these very factories really would really be closed down, and for reasons very different than simple economic weather patterns.
I see Bruce Springsteen as a very honest artist, and I'm hopeful that we'll see him come out swinging again and again to champion the very noble and productive manufacturing work that built the U.S., and that sustained an era he has frequently celebrated. I'd recommend The Promise to any Bruce fan. But I also hope that Bruce might read this article some time and know that we need him to really rally hard and publicly for the American industrial base before its too late.
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