For the better part of 30 years, fans clung to concert tapes and illicitly acquired dubs of the stuff he was working on then, so it was very surprising (and welcome) when he eventually signed off on The Promise, released not only as an adjunct to an anniversary edition of Darkness At The Edge Of Town, but allowed to stand on its own as its own entity, separate from the setup. (Which is why we’re talking about it here, rather than in the context of that album’s reissue.) It was the smart move, because it’s a terrific pile of tunes. These aren’t just siphoned tracks scattered across a larger collection of cast-offs from a disparate career; these recordings all come from the same singular era, with the same defined band members trying to help him concoct his next attempt at the Great American Novel on wax.
And that’s why The Promise is an excellent package, as it presents not one but two LPs’ worth of tunes that would have gone a long way to establishing Bruce as a force to be reckoned with. Go into it blind and ask yourself: this stuff wasn’t as good as what he did end up releasing in 1978? Once you get past that, higher thumbs up to the kid who was so focused on the message he wanted his fourth album to present that he could nudge aside two dozen other songs that anybody else of that era would’ve killed to write, much less record. These are all tunes worthy of that time, and if he had just thrown them on the first pile of plastic that went past the conveyor belt, whatever he called it would have been hailed by Rolling Stone, WNEW-FM and the rest of the usual suspects as a deeply crafted work of amazing import, with maybe only that week’s Graham Parker or Steve Forbert albums to suggest an opponent, but hardly enough to stick in the long run.
Scholars can pinpoint the exact spots, but even we can hear elements that would surface on things that actually did emerge at the time. The set begins with an alternate arrangement of “Racing In The Street”, and continues through what amounts to full-band demos of “Because The Night” and “Fire”, which would have brought him piles of money if he’d released them himself rather than pawn them off on others. Truly, if deejays had gotten their hands on “Rendezvous” back then, you’d still be hearing it today. The set gets its title from a legendary outtake that finally appears in a full band take, right up there with his other epic ballads, but without the engine. (And really, quoting “Thunder Road” so soon after the song of that title? That just wasn’t done in ’78.) They’re not all gems; “Talk To Me” and “It’s A Shame” would have been much better served by Southside Johnny. And nice as it is, listen to “Candy’s Boy” and try to convince yourself that this trip to the beach beats the ball of tension it would eventually evolve into. It’s particularly odd that the last track listed is the underwhelming and hardly enjoyed “City Of Night”, particularly when “The Way” is more what we’d expect from him. Slight as it is, it’s got Clarence, and he wouldn’t be around for much longer.
Everything sounds crisp and clean, and unlike the post-production that rankled fans on Tracks, the songs crackle like the analog of 1977. A handful of tracks have had modern sweetening, but not so much that they render the songs anachronistic. We’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that these songs are to the Bruce pantheon as any of Dylan’s 1965-66 leftovers are to his. Here was a guy firing on all cylinders, and right in the middle of it, he’d figured out how he wanted his albums to sound. It’s clear he knew how to write hits; he wanted to write songs that would last. Good for him.
Bruce Springsteen The Promise (2010)—3½