Five thoughts on the First Listen of Springsteen’s ‘The Promise’

My friends down the work hallway at NPR Music published tonight their First Listen of the new Springsteen release, The Promise, with outtakes from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. Controversially among Bruce devotees, certain songs get more than a cleaning. New vocals and new instrumentation enter the mixes. From Bruce’s comments, he sees the release as a statement now on what he was doing then.

Only listening to the full release can tell us how well he pursues that goal, and the First Listen only has 15 songs. So, not wanting to dig in too deeply yet, here are five takes on just the First Listen material…

1. The #1 highlight for me here is Ain’t Good Enough for You. The good-humored, got-dumped party song was previously available on bootlegs under the name What’s the Matter Little Darling, muffled, tinny blah and running a little fast. This cut sounds true to the time, gets a perfect mix and adds an instant-classic line, “I got a job in sales / I bought a shirt uptown in Bloomingdales.” One concern I have about the remastering is ruining the desolate sound in the Darkness theme. For a party song, that kind of tune-up hits the spot, Asbury Juke-style. In this era, Bruce would sometimes talk in concert about the Swingin’ Medallions (Double Shot of My Baby’s Love, etc) and launch into an early version of Sherry Darling. The E Street Band had a great rave-up album in them then.

2. Of the released material, Fire does great in the studio. The slightly quicker beat is a different creation than the sensual live version, and I can’t turn it off. Because the Night, though, fails big time. Singing the Patti Smith verses instead of his original wording may benefit the next doctoral student to write on Springsteen and Gender Roles, but you can tell he doesn’t buy them as much as he does his own. Hear the version from the Darkness tour (below). Anything else pales. And the “rock” take on Racing in the Street? Hard to hear except in a wormhole, alternate universe sense. Weaker lyrics, over-orchestrated (similar to the rejected Jungleland mixes from the Born to Run sessions), indecent and possibly illegal use of strings, the biggest remix #fail of this lot.

3. Outside Looking In has been a boot favorite of mine for years, and the treatment here is two+ minutes of Jersey-shore-surf-rock heaven. Gotta Get That Feeling isn’t as interesting — almost Darkness traveling music, needing a voice as soulful at Southside Johnny’s to truly make it work. (Same for the until-now unheard It’s a Shame.) But it makes the hop from bootleg to release decently too. … Candy’s Boy… also known from boots but never beloved. Imagine a mash-up of every song from the Darkness era. In one song, we get: the roots of Candy’s Room, the Dynamo from Prove It All Night, a sped-up beat from Factory, lyrics from the soon-to-be-recorded Drive All Night, same for Frankie, and others.

4. Wrong Side of the Street and Save My Love both get strong, late Mick Jagger, old-song, new-singing treatment, with Wrong Side probably a half-and-half deal. Neither offers much to me at first listen. The choices here make me curious about the selection process. The Promise is no Witmark Demos. Everything sounds clean. Makes me wonder what the choices would have been if sound quality hadn’t been so important. The Brokenhearted raises this question too. This version is significantly wordier than what we knew from the Darkness tour rehearsal boots, and modern Bruce sings the last verse. What issues were in the vault copy that made rework necessary? (Can we Web-release the tapes?)

5. Back to the desolation. The Promise and City of the Night are great songs. (The latter is known on bootlegs with titles that are only a tad different but much better, City at Night and Taxi Cab.) Both come mostly in old-voice mode, which is fantastic. The end of City is dubbed, after being unintelligible on the bootlegs forever, but Bruce pulls it off very well. My issue with both is the sound. Perfect, yes, but also filled out. Strings sneak into the back of the Promise mix, and there’s vocal echo in the chorus. One of the saddest works in the Springsteen canon, the song temporarily loses that title when this new version is playing. City, meanwhile, has made every list of top 5 or 10 unreleased Springsteen songs I’ve put together in the last decade. As I’ve written in this blog before, the song captures the empty street. (It’s also great for singing in the shower.) The new mix loses that image some. The old version:

I’m excited to hear the rest of this release and how Darkness proper fairs in remastering. In the First Listen, results are mixed, but they’re better than I expected, honestly. I’m hopeful about what’s left. The Darkness has to beat strings, right? That’s what I keep telling myself.

6 thoughts on “Five thoughts on the First Listen of Springsteen’s ‘The Promise’”

  1. Thanks for this insight – I totally agree.

    In fact, I was just doing the same, going between NPR and a set of Darkness outtakes, and while I’m no audiophile, studio tech, or expert on Springsteen, here’s what I wrote a friend:

    It turns out they used the band version of “Racing in the Street.” I went back and forth between iTunes and NPR, playing a line at a time, and I like the version we got better. The new version is mixed nice and clean, like a studio song, but the bootleg not only sounds more clear – not as full-bodied, muddied-up – but it has that excellent reverb on both the harmonica and vocals. It sounds like Bruce playing the song in an empty loft instead of a cushy studio.

    And for “The Promise”? At first it sounds about the same, only with that same muffled kind of fullness, like too much compression. Then, at the end, they added a ton of strings and boosted the back-up to really fill out the chorus at the end, but it’s way too much. The song’s about desolation and heartache, not some triumphant anthem.

    The weird thing is that the new version is 1:20 shorter than the bootleg. I matched them up, in both players, so they’d play in sync and I could tell what was missing, but right off the beat went flukey. Meaning it’d be a half-beat behind, then right in sync, and then a half beat ahead. Which means they sped up the tape. Did they do that for a more accurate take, or did they shorten it for the radio, or what?

    To top it off, when I went through it, verse by verse, I found they also cut these lines from the final verse:

    I followed that dream through the southwestern flats
    That dead ends in two-bit bars
    And when the promise was broken I was far away from home
    Sleepin’ in the back seat of a borrowed car

    Any insight on this?

  2. OK, I agree mostly, but why is City of the Night sad? I had never heard it before but even the old version doesn’t seem down, just quiet, like an empty street, as you say. Highway Patrolman or Reason to Believe get my votes for saddest, at lest now at 11:30 on election night.

    Also Come On (Let’s Go Tonight) was my favorite.

  3. Hello, Mainer! Welcome. I absolutely agree with your description of the bootleg vs. new versions of Racing. I’d forgotten that version had been booted so dug it up and listened before work this morning (and then proceeded to listen to the rest of the low-number Lost Masters while e-mailing this evening). So much better than the new version, especially for the clarity you mention.

    The Promise edit… bizarre. You look through the lyrics of the various previously recorded and performed versions, and those lines are always there. Am hearing the beat changes now too. It’s like they did digital tightening between certain words to help the soaring strings in the background. If Max had played so oddly during these sessions, Bruce would’ve killed him with a metronome.

    Thank you for pointing all of this out. These kind of changes are what concern me about this release — that Bruce is bringing some revisionism to the table, painting Darkness as a mature, redemptive work… part of a fluid track to the current period (a track where he doesn’t really reach the southwestern flats until the early ’90s). What we’re hearing here isn’t true to the Darkness mood or session sound. Remember the Bruce that wouldn’t let strings on Secret Garden because it didn’t fit the Greatest Hits “narrative”? Where’s that guy when we need him?

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