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.