The 1975 success of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s Born To Run exceeded even unreasonable expectations. A critics’ darling and local favorite, the New Jersey native hit big, releasing an instant classic of an album that won him a worldwide following and famously landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. It was less a breakthrough than an anointment. And it was followed by a long, unexpected silence. A drawn-out dispute with former manager Mike Appel kept Springsteen from going back to the recording studio for Born’s follow-up. But that didn’t keep him from touring, rehearsing, and filling notebook after notebook with songs.
By the time he cut the album that would become 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Springsteen’s process had changed and his focus had shifted. As recounted in Thom Zimny’s The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, a feature-length documentary included in the new box set The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story, Springsteen resisted putting out the first album’s worth of good songs he wrote and recorded, and opted instead to include only those that suited a particular theme. He threw out probable hits and back-burnered great songs that didn’t fit the mood. Some were reworked for future albums. Some were handed off to others. Others simply went into the vault.
Springsteen shaped Darkness into a studied sequel to its predecessor. Its songs captured what happens when the tramps who were born to run ran out of road. It’s an album about the compromises of adulthood, and finding hope amid the sacrifice. A man loses his hearing to the sound of the factory floor in “Factory”—as Springsteen’s own father did—but provides for his family in the process. The protagonist of “Promised Land” holds onto his dream of a better life while raging against the “dreams that tear you apart.” Springsteen had a specific vision, and he shelved everything that didn’t fit it.
The result was a perfect album, the one that confirmed Springsteen was more than a talented kid with a gift for words and the leadership skills of a drill sergeant. The two-disc The Promise collects 22 leftovers (including “The Way,” an excellent unlisted bonus track), none of them previously included on Springsteen’s Tracks box set, all of them polished, to one extent or another, in recent years. Some, like “Breakaway” and the title track—a longtime fan favorite previously released only in a version rerecorded in 1999—fit Darkness’ themes perfectly. Springsteen clearly had the hard choices of growing up on his mind in the wake of his Born To Run success. But Darkness had no place for the lusty sounds of “Because The Night” or “Fire.” It’s no surprise that they became hits—for Patti Smith and The Pointer Sisters, respectively—but it’s astonishing that songs like “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” with its Phil Spector percussion, romantic sentiment, and irresistible chorus, or the slow-building “Save My Love,” could sit unheard for so long. Some tracks, like “Candy’s Boy,” “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” and “Spanish Eyes,” all later reworked into other songs, will be of more interest to hardcore Springsteen fans. But no one would mistake even these dry runs as scraps.
Speaking of hardcore Springsteen fans, they’ll almost certainly want to shell out for The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story, a box set that includes a nicely remastered version of the original album, The Promise; the making-of doc; and two DVDs of concert footage, including a Darkness-era Houston show from 1978 and a performance of the album in its entirety in 2009. (The impressive packaging houses it all in a reproduction of pages from Springsteen’s notebooks, coffee stains and all.) Even fans hesitant to shell out for the set should try to see the Promise doc, in which the E Streeters recall the album’s difficult birth, and a frank Springsteen recalls feeling isolated by fame from the working-class audience that made him a star. He got to live the life of escape and answered prayers he sang about while others got only to watch. Some stars might have kept moving. With Darkness, Springsteen discovered the art of looking back.