When Bruce Springsteen released Born To Run in 1975 he was a scruffy perfectionist, a cockeyed optimist intent on trading wings for wheels, taking his girl in his arms and running for freedom without ever looking back, channelling Phil Spector‘s wall of sound approach in big songs about escape and the search for connection.
But three years later – a worryingly long time for an artist still struggling to prove himself as more than a flash in the pan – Darkness On The Edge Of Town told a very different story. Springsteen’s narrators were older, jaded, and stuck in their workaday miseries, and in answer to the sudden and unforeseeable rise of punk rock, Springsteen culled the hardest, darkest, most brutal songs from his notebook to make up what would become one of rock ‘n’ roll’s finest moments.
But in writing and recording Darkness, Springsteen and his E Street Band worked on more than 40 songs. The album that emerged from them was diamond hard and single-minded in its caged aggression. The Promise, a new collection of 21 recordings from the Darkness sessions, brings light to the ones that got left behind, not because they weren’t fantastic songs, or because they were incomplete, but because they didn’t match the harder aesthetic that Springsteen had carved out for Darkness.
Many of the songs on The Promise could certainly have been released as an album or two of their own in 1977, but instead, they were buried for 30 years. And, newly unearthed, they form a missing link between Born To Run and Darkness. These 21 songs capture Springsteen’s love for ’50s rock – most notably, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison – and prove that if he’d allowed himself, Springsteen could’ve been known as one of the great pop songwriters of his generation. Bubblegum pop does not get any better than the sweetly melancholic Someday (We’ll Be Together), but there was certainly no place for it on Darkness.
Everything here is essential Springsteen – and its late release imbues it all with the nearly mystical historical quality of an arrowhead found in a riverbed, a totem held onto after a trip through time. Gotta Get That Feeling smacks of Spector’s own The Ronettes; Outside Looking In channels both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly‘s Crickets; Wrong Side Of The Street is an anthemic precursor to ’80s Springsteen songs like Dancing In The Dark. Ain’t Good Enough For You is Springsteen soul at its swaying, clapping best – its rhythm is infectious, and it feels archetypal and warmly familiar, ranking among Springsteen’s best.
In a few instances, The Promise also offers earlier versions of songs from Darkness. Candy’s Boy tells the same story as Candy’s Room – in which the narrator is in love with a prostitute and hopes to rescue her from the endless parade of “strangers from the city” – and in this earlier incarnation, the narrative is hung on a beach-tinged boardwalk melody. Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) is an early version of Factory, the narrative focussed on a solemn night out in a factory town after hearing that “the man on the radio says Elvis Presley died”.
Also presented here are early versions of songs that Springsteen wrote and sold for others to sing. Because The Night – which proved a major hit for Patti Smith – sounds visceral and desperate in Springsteen’s gruff delivery. And Fire, later recorded by the Pointer Sisters, feels similarly primal in Springsteen’s hands, and a Clarence Clemons saxophone solo sets it over the top.
Throughout these recordings, the E Street Band perform with complete abandon, and the resulting collection is a testament to the meticulous drive with which Springsteen led his powerhouse band in the late ’70s. The Promise is what got left behind, and the quality of these 21 songs serves to remind the listener how brilliant Darkness On The Edge Of Town really was, and how discerning its craftsmen must have been to leave so much in the dust.