In the liner notes accompanying The Promise, a double album comprising 21 songs recorded in 1977 and 1978 during the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen recalls the guiding principles of those epic sessions: "power, directness, austerity".
Having roared to stardom in 1975 with Born to Run, Springsteen was on his guard against frivolity and hype. With the follow-up, he intended to distance himself lyrically from the urban gypsies and carnival street characters who populated his first three records. Instead, he wanted to articulate small-town reality: moral ambivalence, compromise and disappointment set against a backdrop of economic depression. The music followed suit, stripped to its bare essentials.
When it finally arrived in 1978, Darkness on the Edge of Town was unsparing, monochrome, magnificent. The songs on The Promise, released now after three decades in the vaults, are the fat that got scraped from the bone as Springsteen held true to his stark vision. It's a colourful ragbag of warm pastiche, knockabout romps, retreads of familiar archetypes, and a few real gems.
As befits a man with a legendary work ethic, much of it reeks of perspiration rather than inspiration. Springsteen is revealed as a neat mimic who could ape his heroes at will. He's Buddy Holly on Outside Looking In and Roy Orbison on The Brokenhearted, while Rendezvous flirts with When You Walk in the Room by The Searchers. Fire was written for Elvis Presley and sounds like it; the fantastic City of Night tells us he had caught wind of Elvis Costello, too. Elsewhere he seems to be purging himself of his obsession with Phil Spector.
There is trainspotter-ish fun to be had joining the dots between these embryonic songs and tracks Springsteen later released. The full-blooded tilt of Racing in the Street lacks the haunted quality of the Darkness On the Edge of Town version, and the melody is a mere suggestion rather than hard fact. Spanish Eyes opens with the couplet that eventually found a home in 1984 on I'm On Fire, and Candy's Boy scratches - most becomingly - at an idea that became Candy's Room.
It's not hard to hear why initially none of it made the final cut. This is largely B-grade Boss, but there's a smattering of magnificence. Springsteen decided that the title track of The Promise wouldn't fit on Darkness, but it's a fantastic song, vast and brooding. Similarly, the closing hidden track, The Way, would have slotted on to the album without any drop in dramatic tension. The original version of Because the Night, a hit single in 1978 for Patti Smith, is included here for the first time and is excellent, while One Way Street is slow, sad and lovely.
Mostly, however, The Promise sounds like Springsteen determinedly drilling through hard rock to get to the diamonds on Darkness. It's an impressive document of his instinctive creative gift firing off in all directions, but its enduring legacy is to leave the listener even more dumbstruck by the austere economy of the original album.
The 3-CD box set tells the full story of a remarkable album
The 21 songs on The Promise only hint at the scope of this vast project of retrieval. The deluxe version is a boxed behemoth comprising 3 CDs, 3 DVDs and a book reproducing Springsteen’s working notes and lyrics. The two hours of audio include The Promise and a remastered version of Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it’s the visual material that’s most expansive, running to over six hours. The 90-minute documentary directed by Thom Zimny features unseen footage shot between 1976 and 1978 of Springsteen and the E Street Band rehearsing and recording – including a thrilling first run through of Sherry Darling, hammered out at the piano with guitarist Steve Van Zandt bashing out a rhythm with two drum sticks – mixed with new interviews with Springsteen, his band, and his management. A second DVD captures Darkness played live in its entirety in 2009 at the Paramount Theater in Springsteen’s home patch of Asbury Park, New Jersey, followed by a compilation of live tracks recorded between 1976 and 1978. A third disc features a full 26-song set recorded in Houston during the Darkness tour in 1978. All yours for $120 (Dh440).