Following Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen was proclaimed the savior of rock & roll classicism; it was hype that threatened to derail his career. In a bitter lawsuit with his former manager, he was locked out of a studio for two years but continued writing songs at fever pitch and rehearsing them on a farm in rural New Jersey. Some of these tunes -- composed during an economic recession -- reflect the tension between following one's dreams and her/his responsibilities. Still others reveal the deep influence of early rock & roll on Springsteen. When he was finally able to record, he cut enough material for four albums, and then pared it down to one. Darkness on the Edge of Town proved that Springsteen was no mere revivalist. The album was assembled from more sparsely produced, claustrophobic, and desperate "sound picture" songs, about lives broken by work, family and perceived societal obligations, and are haunted by questions of "what if?" They were a world away from the epic, busting-out-for-freedom maximalist tracks found on Born to Run.
The Promise collects 21 unreleased songs written (and mostly) recorded between 1976 and 1978. They offer an aural view as to what might have been had Springsteen been able to record immediately after Born to Run. While some lyric themes here reflect the brokenness and hard choices found on Darkness, others are substantially more triumphant in their worldview; and musically, all the songs here contain more substantially production. These selections also lack the knife-edge, searing, angry guitar that saturates Darkness. Included are his versions of singles farmed out to other artists -- "Because the Night" (and while this version is terrific, it means something else in the end; Patti Smith's version remains definitive), the gritty, soulful "Fire," which eventually given to the Pointer Sisters who scored big with their classy version. The galloping "Gotta Get That Feeling" summons Jack Nietszche's production ears with its big mariachi brass. This tune and numerous others contain open homages to Phil Spector's "sha-na-na-na" choruses. Clarence Clemons' saxophone is much more prevalent on the songs of The Promise than it is on Darkness. His meat-and-potatoes tone adds heft and groove to these selctions. "Ain't Good Enough for You" is pure handclap, call-and-response, verse and chorus, approaching a doo wop celebration. The poignant love poetry in "The Brokenhearted" and "Spanish Eyes" could have been written by Doc Pomus, and reveals the influence of Jerry Leiber's "Spanish Harlem." "Candy's Boy" begins lyrically in the same place as "Candy's Room," but is a very different song melodically and thematically. "Racing in the Street" features different words; David Lindley's violin makes the track a bit less personal, more anthemic; it's absent the shadow of doubt that makes the Darkness version so devastating emotionally. "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)" is an early version of "Factory." "The Promise" is the only cut that might have added something to Darkness that isn't already there. Its sense of bewilderment, betrayal, uncertainty, and regret is total. That said, the addition of strings draws it outside Darkness' skeletal purview, underscoring the fact that Darkness is perfect as it is. The Promise stands on its own as a great Bruce Springsteen record; it feels finished, focused, and above all, offers definitive proof that Springsteen was even at that early date, one of the greatest rock and pop songwriters America had to offer.