I've always considered Bruce Springsteen's third, fourth and fifth albums, "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The River," to be a trilogy of sorts.
"Born to Run" is all about youthful optimism and rebellion against the status quo. Sick of this town that rips the bones from your back? Baby, hop in my car and we'll escape. Songs, such as "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," "Thunder Road" and the title track, give the listener the impression that all that is needed to solve life's problems is a muscle car and a full tank of gas.
In "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the protagonist has escaped the bonds of his family and hometown only to find that life is exactly the same in his new locale. "Racing in the Street" describes young men desperately holding onto their childhood passions, while "Candy's Room" explores the new and dangerous idea of serious adult relationships.
By the time you get to "The River," all that's left is acceptance of life and all of its ups and downs ... even if those ups and downs are not as pronounced as they once were. "The River's" title track is one of the most realistic and despairing descriptions of love grown cold ever put to music.
With these three albums, as is the case with most trilogies, I find the middle work the most intriguing. Originally released in 1978, "Darkness on the Edge of Town" finds Springsteen the songwriter at a critical crossroads. The phenomenal success of "Born to Run" made him eager to prove that he was no one-hit-wonder, while at the same time his musical style was beginning to be influenced by classic Lieber & Stoller-style rock and roll and the emerging punk bands of the late '70s.
"I had a little record shop in New York City where I bought all the early punk singles as they hit the street," Springsteen said. "I took them home, heard something unique, undeniable and not so foreign to my experience. My musical path had been chosen, but the uncompromising power of these records found its way onto 'Darkness' through the choices and themes of my material."
The 1978 studio sessions for "Darkness" resulted in Springsteen and the E Street Band recording more than 50 songs. A mere 10 made the final cut.
Thirty-two years later, Springsteen has released the new double album, "The Promise: The Lost Sessions from Darkness on the Edge of Town." Featuring 21 recordings from the 1978 sessions that neither made it onto "Darkness" nor the subsequent 1998 album "Tracks," one might think this would be a collection of scraps that deserved its place on the cutting room floor.
And one would be wrong.
"The Promise" is that rare album of previously unreleased material that makes one wonder why the artist held onto the songs for so long. He could've easily made "Darkness" into a successful triple album in 1978, albeit one neither as concise nor biting as the original single-disc release.
So why did Springsteen leave these songs off of "Darkness?" It certainly wasn't because he thought of them as less "hit-worthy" than the others. It is easy to forget that, despite the incredible success of "Born to Run," "Darkness" wasn't immediately embraced by critics or fans. Its two singles, "Prove It All Night" and "Badlands" barely made a dent in the charts, topping out at No. 33 and No. 42, respectively.
No, Springsteen had a vision for the drive, feel and theme of "Darkness," and for whatever reason, these tunes didn't fit into his plan.
"I knew the stakes I wanted to play for, so I picked the hardest of what I had, music that would leave no room to be misunderstood about what I felt was at risk and what might be attained over the American airwaves of popular radio in 1978," said Springsteen of his selections for "Darkness."
"Power, directness and austerity were my goals. Tough music for folks in tough circumstances."
The new collection is a fascinating look at what else the Boss was pondering at that time. Some of "The Promise" feels like a direct link between "Darkness" and "The River," while other songs reveal a songwriter exploring new forms of expression.
Interestingly, two of the songs from "The Promise" became some of the biggest hits ever charted for three different female acts. "Because the Night" introduced non-punk and non-new-wave audiences first to Patti Smith and then to Natalie Merchant, while the Pointer Sisters' version of "Fire" reached No. 2 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1979.
Another two of the songs on "The Promise" did make their way onto "Darkness," albeit in much different forms. "Candy's Boy" is a much more delicate version of the hyper-kinetic, one-long-crescendo that is "Candy's Room." They share many of the same lyrics but are essentially two completely different tunes.
"Racing in the Street" has much in common with the version that was the final song on side one of "Darkness" (remember flipping albums?), except this newly released take is even more somber than its predecessor, sounding more like an outtake from "The River."
It is easy to figure out why some of the songs didn't appear on "Darkness." Musically, "Ain't Good Enough for You" is too peppy for the album, while "The Brokenhearted" is too much of a straight-ahead love song to fit into the tense complexity that is "Darkness."
Longtime Springsteen fans will be delighted by how bits and pieces of the discarded songs from the 1978 sessions popped up later in his work. "Spanish Eyes" begins, "Hey, little girl, is your daddy home? Did he go away and leave you all alone," the exact two lines that would begin his later hit "I'm on Fire."
Performance-wise, "The Promise" finds the E Street Band in top form. From Clarence Clemmons' vibrant saxophone on "Talk to Me" to Roy Bittan's timeless piano introduction to "Because the Night," there's nary a bum note in the entire album, something that certainly can't be said about other artists' outtake collections.
"The Promise" stands out as a collection of misplaced tunes that will be cherished by Springsteen fans and appreciated by all music lovers.
Find Bruce Springsteen online at http://www.brucespringsteen.net.