‘Rock-and-roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies.” That’s a Drive-By Truckers line, but it wouldn’t be out of place on Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen’s furious, embittered follow-up to 1975’s Born to Run. Turns out those hemi-powered drones and dusty beach roads lead to runaway American lawsuits with your former manager. Springsteen recorded more than 70 songs as litigation prevented him from releasing any music for two years, but only 10 made it onto Darkness in 1978. The record’s confined spaces and odd angles are strangely congruent with the tightly coiled stylings of the art-punk bands then smartening up the Bowery: The guitar solo at the end of “Adam Raised a Cain” could’ve been lifted from Marquee Moon, while the majestic “Racing in the Street” is a myth-busting account of how easily desperation replaces grandeur. The album’s “a reckoning with the adult world,” Springsteen says in the documentary that accompanies his new box set, “with a life of limitations and compromises.”
One of the lies rock-and-roll tells is that it has nothing to do with those things—that it is their negation—but limitation and compromise run through the 21 songs from the years between Born and Darkness now collected as a double album called The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story.
“The man on the radio says Elvis Pres-ley died,” Springsteen sings on “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” in a voice strained by the futility of trying to say how much died with him. On Born to Run, Thunder Road was a metonym for Sal Paradisiacal possibility: “We can make it if we run.” When it reappears on “The Promise,” it’s just one more dead end where “we were gonna take it all and throw it away.”
The Promise is something less than Springsteen’s Basement Tapes and more than a collection of outtakes (some of these songs have been released before, and Springsteen couldn’t help tinkering with others). Bruce has never had Dylan’s lightness of touch. Along with Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, he simply was mainstream pop in the ’80s—which he could never have accomplished if his nuances didn’t signify as grand gestures, his artistic conflicts as stagecraft. Pre–Born in the U.S.A., these contradictions were often expressed as squishy bombast—hagiography aside, Darkness has its share—or relatively hookless narrative. Although all the tracks are legible as components of alternative versions of Darkness on the Edge of Town—even the jaunty rockers that look ahead to the looser sound of The River (1980)—it would be wishful thinking to claim that much on Promise matches the best of the album proper. But how much finer the latter would be if “Come On,” “The Promise,” or “Because the Night” had replaced “Streets of Fire.” “An important minor artist or a rather flawed and inconsistent major one,” Robert Christgau wrote in these pages more than 30 years ago. The verdict should be clear by now. Of course, it’s difficult to think of a major artist who isn’t flawed and inconsistent—Elvis? Dylan? James Brown? Van Morrison? John Lennon? The three Top 40 confrères mentioned above? And who has explored the contours of inconsistency and flaw with more devotion than the guy who sang Nebraska into a cassette Portastudio?
The Promise is available separately as a double CD or as part of a three-CD, three-DVD box set that retails for over a hundred bucks. The only way to get the remastered Darkness is to shell out for this unwieldy slab of corporate product. This is especially galling because the original CD remaster sounds as if it had been recorded through a telephone while the band played on the other side of a mudslide. But if you go for the slab, you get an interminable documentary on the making of the album and two DVDs of concert footage. The documentary is more Behind the Music than Dont Look Back—Springsteen is not particularly galvanizing as a talking head—and I don’t know who watches concert DVDs. Rock-and-roll may mean well, but record companies never do.