First Listen

First Listen: Bruce Springsteen, 'The Promise'

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Bruce Springsteen. Frank Stefanko hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Stefanko
Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen.

Frank Stefanko

The Promise, subtitled The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town, is not the usual odds-and-ends reissue package. In 1975, after Born to Run made him a megastar, Bruce Springsteen found himself in a lawsuit with his then-manager, which blocked the singer from making a follow-up for nearly two years until the suit was settled. While lawyers bickered, Springsteen toured and wrote prolifically. And the album that began taking shape in the months after Born to Run ultimately became — some 70+ songs later — a very different album: 1978's fierce Darkness on the Edge of Town. As Springsteen himself reflected, "It's a reckoning with the adult world ... with a life of limitations and compromises."

The 21 songs on The Promise, which are also included in a deluxe reissue of Darkness (both will be released on Nov. 16), are a hypothesis of the album that might have followed Born to Run. Many have circulated on bootlegs in various forms for years, but here they are, presented as complete, fully realized productions. As much as any music Springsteen has made, before or since, these songs are steeped in the history of rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley, with whom the band was obsessed, died during these sessions, in August 1977. You can hear his influence in Springsteen's phrasing all over the set, most explicitly in "Fire," a Presley tribute so spot-on, it sounds like a cover. (Springsteen let his pal Robert Gordon record it; ditto The Pointer Sisters, who scored a 1978 hit with a version.) At one point in "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)," a breathtakingly spooky early version of the somber Darkness track "Factory," Springsteen intones, "The man on the radio said Elvis Presley died."

There are lots of genre exercises here in which the subject is surging love/lust, and the spirit is upbeat — pretty much the polar opposite of Darkness. But Springsteen is such a great writer, the songs become more than manqués; they come off as lost classics themselves. Listen to "Outside Looking In," which rides a tom-tom rumble recalling Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," though Springsteen delivers the verses with a punk-rock sneer. (Remember that these songs were written and recorded in New York City between 1976 and '77.) In "Ain't Good Enough for You," he gets downright goofy. A street-corner, doo-wop-style number driven mainly by handclaps, it sounds like Springsteen is trying to crack up his bandmates as much as anything else: "I got a job in sales / I bought a shirt uptown in Bloomingdales," he sings. He even name-checks his young Brooklyn engineer, Jimmy Iovine, as an icon of cool. (It's doubly amusing now, as Iovine went on to become one of the last great major-label music-business moguls.)

"The Little Things My Baby Does" combines Roy Orbison falsetto drama with girl-group bounce and a chiming, Beatles/Byrds-style guitar by Steven Van Zandt. "Talk to Me" also sounds like an early-'60s AM radio classic. Springsteen gave that one to his pal Southside Johnny; like "Fire," it just didn't fit the mood of Darkness. Ditto "Because the Night," the most famous song in the set: Springsteen had recorded it as a half-written fragment, then passed it off to his friend Patti Smith, who completed it and scored her biggest hit with it. The version here appears to draw on Smith's final version, although Springsteen changes the bridge. It sounds magnificent.

In the 2010 liner notes, Springsteen writes of these recordings: "Where needed, I worked on them to bring them to fruition. Many stand as they were recorded all those years ago. On those I worked on, I did what I would've done to them at the time and no more." Aside from "Save My Love," a brand-new recording, it's hard to tell which tracks have recent additions. A lot of lush production touches — choral vocals, mariachi-flavored brass charts, strings — are uncharacteristic of his work at the time. But everything fits the spirit of the music Springsteen was emulating during the original sessions: the operatic pop-rock of Roy Orbison, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound productions, the pomp of post-Sun Studios Elvis. And, heard in the present-day context of young pop maximalists like The Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, these history-minded songs also sound surprisingly modern.

The title track, "The Promise," is one of the most storied songs in Springsteen's catalog. Originally pegged as the centerpiece of Darkness, it's a song of betrayal and loss that accrued a lot of baggage during his legal battle, which many thought it was addressing. (Springsteen has been quoted as saying, "I don't write songs about lawsuits.") After months of work, the song was shelved. Here, played by the band and swathed in strings, "The Promise" — about a man who "works in a rock 'n' roll band / lookin' for that million-dollar sound," and a narrator who "lived a secret I shoulda kept to myself" — re-enters the world as an enigmatic coda to this remarkable new set. It's history as it happened, and as it might have been.

Hear 15 selections from The Promise (The Lost Sessions: Darkness on the Edge of Town) here until its release on Nov. 16. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.

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First Listen