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A Classic Expanded
on 1 December 2012
I wrote this review for Amazon US on 11/18/10. Often I see a comprehensive box set released and it looks so good but I wish I was just a little more interested in the subject album or artist. I didn't have that problem with this one. At 16 years old back in 1978 Darkness On The Edge Of Town was the first serious album I ever bought. Up to then I was buying Aerosmith, Kansas, Rush and the like, didn't own a thing (yet) by Bob, Bruce, Van, Neil etc. Back in those days we all listened to the radio because it was fresh and exciting. WPLJ in New York City was my station. They started playing 4 songs from Darkness constantly (as well as broadcasting the Cleveland '78 show which I taped on my radio shack 8-track stereo - still have the tapes). Carol Miller, an amazing DJ at WPLJ, seemed to have a major crush on Bruce. Soon I was hooked on an artist that would remain in my top 3 to this day.
Darkness is a landmark Bruce album, certainly worthy of the box set treatment. But who would have thought we would get anything like this? Let's break things down:
1. THE PACKAGING
Very different than anything you have seen before. It comes in a large slipcase that is made to look like a worn copy of the album. Inside the slipcase is an actual spiral notebook that is very thick, a reproduction of one of the worn notebooks that Bruce used when creating the album. The 6 discs are spread out inside the contents of the notebook in little envelopes built into the extra thick pages. The notebook will be fascinating to the Bruce fanatic. It has tracklists for different darkness running orders, handwritten lyrics often different than the released songs, pictures and other ephemera. An unusual item that will take a couple enjoyable hours to go through.
2. THE REMASTER
I'm not an audiophile so others can explain this better, but Darkness on cd has always sounded a little dull and lifeless. This release remedies that. Everything sounds fuller and richer, jumps out of the speakers in a way it never did before - without sounding shrill and brittle like some remasters can sound. The actual album was to me one of the lesser reasons for buying this set, but I am very pleased to have this.
3. THE PROMISE - 2 CD'S OF OUTTAKES FROM THE DARKNESS SESSIONS
The Bruce camp has been touting this as sort of the lost album between Born To Run and Darkness. That is marketing and nothing more. This is not in any way a cohesive album of songs anywhere close to those 2 masterpieces. These are outtakes, similar to the Tracks collection and even the many bootleg cd's released over the years. Many of the songs are derivative of other Bruce songs with snippets of melodies and lyrics you will immediately recognize. In my opinion there are only a few that could have been in serious consideration for the album, and almost none that would not have marred the feel and continuity of the finished work. Also the hard truth about this collection is that some of these songs are not that good. Don't get me wrong - they are not bad. But SOME of these songs are merely generic mid tempo rockers and ballads, pretty bland compared to Bruce's best work in this era. It's always exciting to get new Bruce and mediocre Bruce is better than most of what's out there. That being said I can't see myself being drawn to listen to about half the songs on this collection much as the years go by. Of course your mileage may vary. On the flip side there are a good amount of songs that any other artist would have as the centerpiece of their album and never consider holding back. Because The Night, Fire, The Promise and a few others are genuine Springsteen classics and are long overdue for legitimate release. Despite that this set is a bit overhyped it is a welcome addition to Bruce's released work.
On a side note a couple people have commented on these songs being doctored recently with overdubs, etc. I will say that these songs do seem pretty polished and I am curious exactly what was done to them and when. Maybe someone will do an analysis and post it online. I don't think the average fan cares much about this issue but it does seem a little like cheating to me. :-)
4. THE MAKING OF DARKNESS DOCUMENTARY DVD
This is a fascinating documentary, over an hour and a half long, that really gives us a feel of what Bruce and the band went through to create this great work. There is lots of great footage of Bruce and the boys in the studio as well as current commentary. Watching this I begin to understand the commitment that Bruce had to making the finished album conform to his vision. To wade through the 50+ songs (many of them great in their own right but not adhering to the overall theme of Darkness) is an amazing achievement.
5. HOUSTON '78 CONCERT DVD
They call this a Bootleg House Cut. You will enjoy it more if you think of it that way. It was filmed in 1978 for in-house broadcast (probably a little bit down from TV broadcast quality, but really not bad at all). It is not crystal clear, the sound is not pristine but it is nevertheless fantastic and the average Bruce fan will get lost in this. A full 3 hour show of Bruce and The E Street Band at the top of their game. Some of these songs are spine-tingling. I will tell you one thing that I personally like about old footage. It is a pet peeve of mine that modern concerts (Bruce included) are usually filmed with the quick style editing that sees a camera shot change every one and a half seconds. I much prefer the way they used to film things back in 1978. Also, with quite a few bootleg videos from this tour already circulating it is an accomplishment to find something that no one has seen before.
6. THRILL HILL VAULT VIDEO
A few simply filmed in-the-studio songs. Goes well with the documentary. Also 5 live tracks from Phoenix 1978. Like Houston the quality is not perfect, but the performances are stunning.
7. DARKNESS PERFORMED BY CURRENT BAND
Bruce and the band perform the album in the original running order without an audience. I was surprised at how great this is, that this is a vital document and not just a bonus. Of course, after watching the archival footage, the video and audio quality is impressive. This is a focused, passionate, serious performance. No smiles, no distractions. These are 60 year old men whose youth is gone but are still at the top of their game musically. These performances are amazing. I get the sense from Bruce and the band that they know how blessed they are to still play these songs so well with so much weight and so many years behind them, that they know that everything comes to an end eventually. That these days are precious. This set is a perfect bookend in this collection.
I can't think of a more comprehensive, exhaustive look at a single album. And every element works. One can tell that in putting together something of this magnitude that Bruce was very much committed to making this special. Obviously if you are only a marginal Bruce fan this will be overkill. But if you are a longtime fan with affection for this album you will enjoy this for a long time.
Added 7/3/11: As tonight I again watched the 12/13/09 performance of Darkness in its entirety I am reminded what an important document this set is. There is a gravity and mortality that hangs over this incredible performance. Danny is already gone and this is the 2nd to last time Clarence will perform with Bruce and the E Street Band. Every song here is just about perfect, but they played a 10 minute Racing In The Streets that is one for the ages. When Bruce's vocals are done these men - Bruce and Clarence and Roy and Stevie and Max and Garry - continue playing for another 5 minutes. It is as beautiful a piece of music as I will ever hear - men in their twilight mourning and celebrating the passage of all those lost summers.