Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise begins with an evocative piano that’s immediately familiar and yet surprisingly fresh, accurately foreshadowing the ensuing 20 songs. A harmonica, bitter but triumphant, comes in over the melancholic piano, and the introductory track turns out to be a more recent version of “Racing in the Street” off the Born to Run follow-up Darkness on the Edge of Town. It is haunting, audacious and ultimately grand, and it kicks off an elaborate exploration of the deeper side of The Boss.
Springsteen, after the creation of his breakthrough album Born to Run, was forcibly put on hiatus due to legal issues and contractual disagreements. Three years later, Springsteen and his E Street Band went back to the studio for recording sessions that would eventually result in Darkness on the Edge of Town, a largely conceptual album. These sessions produced a wealth of material, to the extent that many songs were left either unfinished or not included on the final album. The Promise is a compilation of many of these forgotten tracks, some with new additions or even entire re-recordings.
The Promise captures the Springsteen who has been immortalized for his pure, unadulterated American rock. The songs cover the emotional gamut; some (“One Way Street,” “City of Night”) are close to heart-wrenching, while others (“Ain’t Good Enough For You,” “Talk To Me”) are upbeat and even uplifting. These are the types of songs that would typically be playing in a hole-in-the-wall bar late one night — no one’s likely to be dancing, but nobody’s rushing to turn them off either. The tracks are comforting in their natural simplicity, just like the songwriter himself.
The highlights of The Promise are somewhat few and far between, but ultimately beneficial to the album as a whole. The songs each seem to be a part of each other, to the extent that impercipient listeners may not catch when one ends and another begins. This makes the exceptions all the more noticeable. “Because The Night” was originally written by Springsteen and then discarded to be picked up and recorded by Patti Smith (to notable success). The wonderfully dark version included in The Promise and allows guitarist Steven Van Zandt the opportunity to showcase his craft. “Ain’t Good Enough For You,” early in the second disc, is swinging and fun in its casual self-deprecation, and its chorus (“Oh, I quit little darling / Yeah, no matter what I do / Girl, you know it’s true / Ain’t good enough for you”) is infectious.
A few of the tracks may have best been abandoned altogether. “Fire,” for instance, was originally written and intended for Elvis Presley. Though interesting, the song comes off as an Elvis impersonation and feels out of place in the middle of a Bruce Springsteen album.
The two discs of forgotten and lost songs are a welcome addition to the already illustrious Springsteen discography. By mostly using material recorded from the post-Born To Run era, the album provides new music from Springsteen when he was still at the height of his career. As a whole, The Promise is a worthy venture.