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An eye to posterity
on 22 November 2010
This is not a rival to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. There's not a track on here that would have improved Springsteen's best ever record. If The Promise had been released in 1978, it would almost certainly have been hailed as a masterpiece, but it would have been a lesser one than what we actually got. But as you listen - if you listen carefully - you really come to appreciate The Boss's creative process, and not least the meticulous attention to detail and the apparent willingness to go all the way back to the drawing board if necessary. The Promise is full of painstakingly produced songs that on close examination don't quite come up to the Springsteen standard, in the main, but still stand as a tribute to his art.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town is, as I've said, Springsteen's best record, and Racing On The Street is the best of the best. The alternative version presented on The Promise is fine in its own right, with added harmonica and a breathtakingly soulful violin break toward the end. But the opening line, with a '32 Ford instead of a '69 Chevy, sounds awkward, and Springsteen seems to stumble a little over the rest of the words in the line, and some of the others later on. It feels raw and unrefined. Not in themselves bad things, but we've been better served by the additional work that went in to the released version, not least the melody from Then He Kissed Me and the more explicit reference to Dancing In The Street. That eventually racing in the street became an alternative to "dying piece by piece" also gave it a much more existential edge than the choice between money and having nothing else to do.
In Candy's Boy, the model for Candy's Room, once more the lyrics stumble somewhat, with each verse opening inexplicably with a redundant "Well", and the music lacks the sexual thrust of Room, with its driving beat and testosterone-charged guitar. That was Rock `n' Roll indeed. Candy's Boy is Rock `n' Roll in the making.
And Come On (Let's Go Out Tonight), an alternate version of The Working Life, is diluted by the opening lines about going out on a date. The originally released version had a much harder edge in being focused on the exigencies of factory employment instead of factory employment being the background story. And again the lyrics sound a little awkward. Nevertheless, musically this track is one of the best on the collection. Where the violin on Racing adds a vaguely country feel, Come On wouldn't be out of place on CMT.
Some of the tracks have the feel of demos, which may explain why the passion is a little half-done on songs later covered by others: Because The Night, infused with feeling by Patti Smith, Fire, made into a pop classic by the Pointer Sisters, and Rendezvous, bequeathed to Gary US Bonds on the excellent On The Line album, produced by The Boss and Miami Steve. The same can't be said for others, though, especially songs like Someday, which is what may have happened had Roy Orbison ever teamed up with Phil Spector, and The Brokenhearted, the possible result had Phil and Big O recorded with a mariachi band. City Of Night is a soul number which could have been done by Sam Cooke or Otis Redding, with Danny Federici channelling Booker T.
The title track itself could also have been called Thunder Road Revisited, although the lights are now all out and there's no sign of Mary. Having talked about escaping the "town full of losers" it seems that reality has caught up, and our hero now drives through "the dead ends and all the bad scenes", and "[cashes] in some dreams". This song is the single best reason to listen to the collection, in line with the mood on Darkness, and the one which would most readily have fitted in with Darkness's other songs, even though the backward reference makes it seem a little retro.
So whilst it's true that The Promise is a lesser work overall than Darkness, it has plenty to recommend it, to the Springsteen aficionado, casual listeners, and students of the zeitgeist.
Finally, it has to be said that the album art is stunning. Dark brooding monochrome desert shots with a black stormy sky in the background together with similarly monochrome shots of The Boss in a rundown house with flaking paintwork. When Eric Meola took those shots he had his eyes on posterity, just as did the creators of the music itself.