An indispensible portrait of an artist at the top of his game.
Alex Denney 2010-11-12
In 1978 Bruce Springsteen was being written off as a busted flush; the product of major-label promotional muscle incapable of making good on his considerable hype. With Born to Run’s star-making turn nearly three years distant at a time when such absences were all but unthinkable, Springsteen fell victim to his own success as the "future of rock ‘n’ roll", a label he quickly grew to hate.
In fact, any perceived creative shortfall was way off the mark – following Born to Run’s release, Springsteen became embroiled in a legal dispute with his then-manager, Mike Appel, which kept him out of the studio for almost two years, and informed the introspected sound of its belated successor.
That follow-up was called Darkness on the Edge of Town and remains perhaps the pivotal work in The Boss’ emphatic oeuvre, canning the widescreen optimism of Born to Run for a record dealing with small-town frustration and innocence on the run from external forces Springsteen was just coming to understand.
Darkness… may also just be his finest record, and we’ve got maths to back us up here. During the acrimonious period that followed his money-spinning third album, Springsteen had amassed a formidable repertoire of some 70-plus songs, whittled down in accordance with his wishes to make a record reflecting downbeat social realities.
That means The Promise – an album collecting some of the songs never to make the cut – has an embarrassment of riches to draw from, since many of the tracks here were left off the album not for quality-control purposes but simply because they didn’t fit in with the programme.
The two most obvious cases in point are Because the Night and Fire, a libidinous pair of tracks turned into hits by Patti Smith and The Pointer Sisters respectively which capture Springsteen at the very peak of his pop-songwriting game.
Songs like Outside Looking In and The Brokenhearted reflect Springsteen’s love of early rock‘n’rollers like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, and the car-greased romantic puts in thrilling appearances on Save My Love and the balmy, inspired Gotta Get That Feeling. Then there’s the small matter of the stunning title-track, a sombre mid-tempo ballad omitted from Darkness for fear that listeners would associate it with his legal troubles: "when the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my dreams".
The Promise is as compelling an advert for the Boss’s beautiful, blue-collar soul as you’re likely to find outside of the hits; an indispensible portrait of an artist at the top of his game. File this one under American Greats.