The set starts, appropriately, with four songs from his Columbia “audition”, and proceeds to tell the rest of the story, more or less chronologically, with some deviation to accentuate flow. Everything appears in studio quality, whether mixed then or for the box; in a few cases he added horns or even vocals from E Streeters to fill up a song just prior to its release here. We’re hardly of the caliber of the most devoted Springsteen scholars; the supplementary notes compiled by his most dedicated fanzine is required reading for anyone approaching this collection. But we do enjoy lists and puzzles, so hearing this alternate history does provide another perspective, and some more appreciation for why people love the guy so damn much.
Since so many of these songs were at one time contenders for whatever album he was trying to complete, the question is begged as to whether he should have included any of the rejects over what he did. The answer is an emphatic no. While there are some true compositional gems, so many of the tracks have the same production effects that color the ones we already know. The River might well have been better off as a single LP, or even the earlier, rejected sequence that would have been The Ties That Bind. Born In The U.S.A. would still have bad synthesizers, and we’ve already discussed how to improve on Human Touch and Lucky Town. And because it only scratches the surface, the jury is out on the alternate universe of Darkness At The Edge Of Town—for now, anyway. Perhaps the elusive Electric Nebraska is being saved for a future anthology as well.
As with any project of this theme, the “real fans” had lots of complaints with liberties taken and songs ignored. This continued the following spring when 18 Tracks distilled the box down to a single disc—you know, for the “casual fan”—but also added three songs not on the box, effectively forcing fans to open their wallets again.
It’s a well-thought-out selection, focusing on rockers (mostly), alternate versions of familiar songs and two of the more popular B-sides (namely “Pink Cadillac” and the underrated “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart”). The “new” songs then appear at the end of the disc. “Trouble River” was left off of Human Touch, despite being half-decent, and likely because it runs the same riff into the ground. The legendary Darkness-era song “The Promise” appears in a brand new solo recording, as opposed to a vintage E Street take. But all is nearly redeemed by “The Fever”, the best song left off his second album, perhaps because it sounded so much like his first album (where it also would have been the best song). Criminally excluded from Tracks, one wonders if this was the plan all along.
Bruce Springsteen Tracks (1998)—3
Bruce Springsteen 18 Tracks (1999)—3½