Bruce Springsteen – The Promise box set

The Promise

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You may not know this, but I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. “Huge” may not even be the right word–I hold Bruce’s music in such esteem that once or twice a month I dig out some harmonicas and a flannel shirt and perform a tribute to the man at various bars around Chicago. His work speaks to me in a way that no other artist’s does, and his philosophy of holding on to hope against all adversity has proven an important positive influence in my life.

It’s no surprise, then, that I could barely contain my anticipation for The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story. This deluxe box set satisfies many a Bruce fan’s dreams. Among its contents: a remastered copy of the original Darkness album, a two-disc set of unreleased cuts from its recording sessions, a film about its creation, a live 2009 performance of the record, a complete 1978 concert from the resulting tour, and random studio and live outtakes from that time period, all wrapped up in a facsimile reproduction of Bruce’s book of handwritten notes on the album. I can’t imagine anything else that might’ve been included here, except maybe some kind of magic genie that appears if I chant the chorus to “Something in the Night” backwards.

Because the Promise box set is so massive, I think the only good way to review it is in its component pieces. So let’s take a look inside, shall we?

Disc 1: Darkness on the Edge of Town remastered: Darkness is without a doubt one of Bruce’s key albums, and it marks the point at which the youthful dreamer of Born to Run meets the world of grown-ups, for better or worse. It gets a bit of a sonic makeover here courtesy of engineer Bob Ludwig. As a result, the album ends up sounding a little crisper and thicker, but loses nothing that makes it the masterpiece it is.

Disc 2&3: The Promise two-CD set: I’d guess this two-disc set of unreleased songs provides the main attraction for most Springsteen fans. It is indeed quite cool, especially in how it brings some new context to Bruce’s oeuvre. Many of the tracks on The Promise are proto-versions of songs fans would come to recognize on The River or even Born in the USA. Some are just damn good rock songs that got left off Darkness to keep its tone consistent. Not every song on here is a winner, but they’re a key part of Springsteen history and, besides that, are mostly pretty solid. Among the highlights: Bruce’s new single “Save My Love,” which has a building crescendo that’d make Arcade Fire jealous, and “Ain’t Good Enough for You,” a rollicking 50s-style rock song that every Springsteen tribute band in the world should get to learning right away. It’s also a real treat hearing Bruce’s original studio version of “Because the Night,” a song made famous by many other artists but until now unheard in its original form.

Disc 4: The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town movie: Directed by Thom Zimny, this 90-minute documentary tells the tale behind the creation of the Darkness record. It includes band interviews, rare archival footage, and some great insights about Springsteen’s ideology. Music nerds may find the segments featuring album mixer Chuck Plotkin especially fascinating, as they provide an outlook on the mixing process you’re not likely to get anywhere else.

Disc 5: Darkness 2009 live performance/archival footage from 1976-1978: On the first half of this disc the E Street Band rent out a New Jersey theater to run through the whole of Darkness in a live, albeit empty, setting. It’s an interesting performance, especially considering context of the current E Street group. For this performance Bruce cuts the band, at present three people larger, down to its 1978 membership (with Charlie Giordano standing in for the late Danny Federici). This core assemblage gives some blistering performances here, especially on several of Darkness‘ ballads (“Streets of Fire” positively burns), and it’s cool to see Bruce take back solos that these days go to the band’s third guitarist, virtuoso Nils Lofgren. The second half of the DVD is essentially a collection of bonus features from the Promise film; it’s just the full video clips that movie referenced. Still, the disc includes some great outtakes, particularly a 1978 performance of “Rosalita” which finds a slew of women rushing the stage at the song’s climax, reminding us all of the hardships of the rock & roll lifestyle.

Disc 6: 1978 Houston concert: This is probably the other most-anticipated part of the box set, and it’s the only part where I felt kind of let down. Unfortunately, the concert DVD hasn’t been remastered for modern technology. It is instead the “house cut” of the Houston show, that thing they show on a venue’s monitors for people who can’t see the stage. That may mean it’s impossible to make look especially nice, but the live performances on disc five come from the same tour and have been remastered, so I’m not sure why this concert couldn’t be fixed up. It’s a rough transition to go from the exceptional quality of the first five discs to the VHS-style feel of this one. Still, the concert’s high-energy performances will probably have you forgetting about it pretty quickly. In particular, it’s a lot of fun to see early live versions of River songs including “Independence Day,” “The Ties That Bind” and “Point Blank,” which takes a strange and unfamiliar turn after the second chorus. In addition, the concert includes the legendary ’78 live version of “Prove It All Night,” which certainly lives up to its hype. All in all it’s a great watch, if not quite up to the standards of the rest of the package.

The box: Speaking of the packaging, director Thom Zimny also designed this box set, and it’s fantastic. He gets almost as much credit as Bruce does for making this collection a must-have. The casing takes the form of a reproduction of Bruce’s notebook from the Darkness recordings, and it’s full of interesting tidbits and trivia that any Springsteen fan will find riveting. For instance: at one time the opening track on Darkness was set to be “Darlington County,” a song which wouldn’t appear until Born in the USA six years later! Beyond being fascinating, the notebook reproduction also has a brilliant connection to the Promise film, which often shows us Bruce interacting with the real thing. It gives viewers a powerful tie to what they’re seeing on screen, as they hold a facsimile of that prized object in their hands. All told the design of The Promise couldn’t be any better, and the notebook alone almost justifies this set’s price tag.

Overall, The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story is a wonderful box set that no Bruce fan can do without. The ties it contains to Springsteen’s history serve to enrich the Boss’ already-full catalog, and it gives obsessive fans like me another collection of material to obsess about for years to come. I look forward to endless days pouring over that notebook, and I’m eternally grateful that there’s an artist out there whose work warrants such treatment in the first place.

tags: bruce springsteen, darkness on the edge of town, the promise

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