November 25, 2010
I agree with other reviewers that Bruce Springsteen’s album The Promise is incendiary. I mean, Jesus H., has there ever been another collection of artistic work culled together from the cutting-room floor that could be universally hailed as a masterpiece? It’s like walking into a garage sale and finding a recording of Rolling Stones songs cut from Let It Bleed that didn’t fit onto Sticky Fingers. But better. Recorded in the late 70s, it shows Bruce’s experience had finally caught up to his youthful exuberance and he was working at the height of his creativity. This whole record is, like Q-tipping after a shower, an earful of joy.
Great artists often have their finger on the pulse of culture long before the public, so it’s no accident Bruce released this new/old material now. (OK, well, the box set’s also going to make a great Christmas gift.)
For the uninitiated, let’s give the album some context:
After the success of 1975’s Born to Run (he simultaneously graced both TIME and Newsweek’s covers), Bruce wasn’t about to become a one-hit wonder. He began to work on his follow-up but was caught in a recording-contract clusterjam that resulted in all of Bruce’s earnings from his recorded material being direct-deposited to his manager’s bank account. Nice. So after his hard and well-earned watershed moment, he couldn’t record music, but he could write it. So to keep himself in the black, he wrote and sold songs such as “Because the Night” to Patti Smith and “Fire” to The Pointer Sisters.
When the fiasco cleared, Bruce and the E Street Band finally put out Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978. People were expecting an anthemic, Brill Building follow-up to Born to Run, but what arrived instead was tough music for tough times, with themes of lost innocence, austerity, anger, and defiance.
The Promise is comprised of songs Bruce didn’t use on that album–not because they were lesser works. You could argue that some are superior. It’s just that Darkness was consciously crafted to evoke a specific feeling. But in cutting these songs from Darkness, Bruce stored an amazing album on a shelf. Until now.
Many of The Promise’s dusted-off tracks are “classic” Bruce—upbeat, soaring, and optimistic—which is why they couldn’t work on Darkness. Listening to the album reminds me of spending summers in the 1980s near Asbury Park, NJ, where Bruce got his start.
On any given night back then, there was a Springsteen record playing down the shore. The hair was big, the cars were loud, and irony was a word in the dictionary, not a way of life. His band’s style of Americana—the innocent keyboards, longing sax wail, high-octane guitars, the weary-yet-hopeful vocals—wasn’t just great background music. It reflected who we felt we were and who we aspired to be: hearty, idealistic, earnest, ambitious, and yet modest people. Bruce was a man’s man unafraid to shed a tear.
There was a time when Americans strived to be our best selves, when we knew what we did well and what we valued. (Side note: Women’s Studies professors, Black History Month lovers, and Harvey Milk fans, I realize things weren’t great for you, but if you could put your niche politics aside momentarily, that would be swell. Thank you.) The songs evoke a bygone era, one that was devoid of the knee-jerk media cynics, wingnuts, ambivalent citizenry, and puffed-up politicians that have been so polarizing the past decade.
The title track, with its themes of betrayal and despair, feels more relevant for today than for 1978. Bruce laments that “When the promise is broken, you go on living/But it steals something from down in your soul.” I, too, feel like a promise has been broken—the one America made about being a country of the free and the brave. Lately, it feels more like the greedy and the subjugated.
American institutions are failing, our leaders follow, politicians lack backbone, artists mash up what’s already been created rather than create anything new, and I can’t get $20 from an ATM without buying the bank their morning latte.
But Bruce never surrenders to despair. In his anthemic work, the future is always better, though the road may be long and uncertain. There is always a ray of hope, whether in a lyric, note, or his voice’s timbre. Upbeat and soaring, his earnestness melts any doubt or cynicism.
The Promise is an aural time capsule to a brighter period in this country’s history. Releasing its 70s-era positivity into today’s toxic culture makes it abundantly clear that America has lost its true north. On The Promise, Bruce Springsteen reminds us of who we once were and still can be–but “We gotta get that feeling/Back again.”
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