Songs on this double album (4 sides of music! Kids, ask your parents over 50 what that means) of unreleased music from the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" recording sessions fall into one of three categories
Incubator songs that provided lyrics, tunes, even riffs, to other songs that made it on the album (and followup albums--listen for a snatch of lyrics from "Atlantic City" which wouldn't be released for a few years). Some of these songs, like "Racing in the Streets" with a different tune and some different lyrics, are quite good and stand alone, others are not quite complete.
Songs that are not quite up to the lyrical or musical level of the rest of the songs that made the final cut, or that Springsteen loaned out to other artists (Southside Johnny's "Talk to me", in addition to the more famous "Fire" and "Because the Night"--how many artists can give away a song of that calibre?).
Songs that are obviously derivative. Some of these are of interest only to name-check the source (Roy Orbison? That's a clunker), but others could stand on their own. "Ain't Good Enough for You" plays like a 50s raveup, but with enough verve and lyrical style to be anybody else's A side.
On the Jimmy Fallon Show recently (where Springsteen helped Fallon on his second brilliant Neil Young sendup "Whip my Hair"), Stevie Van Zandt said that The Promise was a journal of lost arguments. Apparently, Stevie and others in the band argued to release many of these songs as a second disk to Darkness, or a followup album, but Springsteen held his ground. His liner notes to the Promise explain why. He felt he had written songs powerful enough to shape the sound of American radio (remember when that still mattered?), and he wanted just the best on Darkness, and he was right. That's a statement of amazing creative power that only a very few (Dylan, the later Beatles when they controlled their own output) can make. And it is a statement of powerful ambition, one that could override the desires (if not the democratic vote of the E Street Band--surely Bruce's vote outweighs the rest)--and financial interest--of his bandmates and closest friends.
So, The Promise is an uneven experience. Some songs are as good as any Springsteen (Save my Love), others will get only a few plays before sinking to the bottom of the playlist. But the album is fascinating for its vision of an artist finding his voice, his style, his lyrics, his tone, in songs that succeeded only in part, only in parts or not at all. He is an artist at his creative work, and it is a fascinating insight. Those songs that we know and love don't always appear in a single "Eureka!" moment of feverish artistic fever. Often, perhaps most often, they are the product of craft honed over time and with effort.
I was reminded of the movie Shakespeare in Love, which I recently watched for the first time (after visiting London and the site of the Rose Theater in London this year, my wife was able to convince me In Love was more than a chick flick, and as usual, she was right). Here we get to see the elusive Shakespeare at work shaping his craft. Of course, the movie is a fiction, but the Shakespearean scholar and author of Who Wrote Shakespeare which I recently read and reviewed agrees that In Love is a is a good picture of the milieu of Elizabethan theater, and a plausible take on how Shakespeare may have found (listen to the street scenes for snatches of lines later immortalized), created, and sharpened his finest works. Am I comparing Springsteen to Shakespeare? Well,no, given the vast differences in their chosen art form, historical time, temperament, social background, and academic standing, it would hardly seem a fair comparison--ahhh, but unfair to whom?
In any case, watch the movie and listen to the music and consider how each of these artists created some of their greatest output, and I think you will gain some new insight and renewed respect for each and for the power of their art. And perhaps, those who don't get Shakespeare or can't stand Springsteen will find some common ground and new sources of the sense of wonder at the creative power of humanity at its best.
I'll leave you with that, and suggest that you listen to The Promise, watch Shakespeare in Love, and witness Shakespeare on paper and stage.
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