Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Already being hailed by some as the Holy Grail of box sets, Bruce Springsteen's recent four-disc box set Tracks comes with the kind of outsized expectations the Boss has been grappling with since Gerald Ford was in the White House.

Notoriously stingy with his own output over the course of his 26-year recording career, here Springsteen for the first time assembles a collection of what he affectionately refers to in the liner notes as "the ones that got away." To understand what that really means, you have to consider that each of his 11 studio albums has been carefully crafted around specific themes and even images. Songs that in a less focused (some would substitute the word "neurotic") artist's hands would likely have ended up as milestones in his recording career instead ended up on the cutting room floor, because they just didn't quite fit with the overall effect he was looking for from that particular set of 10 or 12 (or, in the case of the double LP The River, 20) songs.

What you end up with here, then, is a large block of work that indeed consists for the most part of distinctly individual tracks as opposed to Springsteen's normal thematic progressions. There are naturally bits and pieces of the styles and themes of each of his various musical personas represented here (the motor-mouthed street rat, the bombastic romantic hero, the gritty working-man's rocker, the introspective explorer of intimacy, and the troubadour of the downtrodden). But overall, the songs stand or fall on their own.

As you might expect in an album with nearly four hours of music that's never been allowed to see the light of day (bootlegs notwithstanding), there are a few things present that confirm Springsteen's original judgment of their relative merit. But the total effect is a remarkable overview of a lengthy and musically diverse career, and individual moments on this set rank with the best of his recorded output.

Disc One kicks off with the somnolent voice of renowned Columbia talent hound John Hammond introducing Springsteen's very first official recording, his original four-song acoustic audition tape from May 1972. The tracks are lean and raw, revealing a young, untested talent pouring his heart into the microphone, but they do provide a clear picture of the ferociously ambitious approach to songwriting that won the kid a contract.

The rest of the initial disk covers outtakes from Springsteen's first four albums. The clear highlights are "Zero And Blind Terry" and "Thundercrack," two sprawling, melodramatic narratives that compare well, even if they don't quite match up to, the classic Springsteen mini-operas "Backstreets" and "Jungleland." Here, as throughout these early songs, Clarence Clemons' burning sax work and the dueling keyboards of Danny Federici and David Sancious (soon replaced by Roy Bittan) provide vital texture and continuity to the radically shifting tempos Springsteen employs.

One of the joys of this set for the Springsteen-phile is seeing how he latches on to ideas and phrases and keeps playing with them until he finds the context that will give them maximum impact. "Seaside Bar Song," an energetic 1973 cut that suffers under the weight of a cheesy organ line, nonetheless presages the urgent drive and much of the thematic content of 1975's immortal "Born To Run" (not to mention introducing the phrase "the highway is alive tonight," employed to great effect 20 years later in "The Ghost Of Tom Joad").

Disc two provides another body of evidence demonstrating just how prolific Springsteen truly is -- virtually an entire album that got away. The guts of this disc are an LP's worth of songs written and recorded in the prodigious spurt of productivity that led up to 1980's double album The River.

Here you can find several of the set's high points, as Springsteen fuses the breathless rock and roll passion of "Born To Run" with the urgent desperation of "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" and comes up with the blistering, harrowing "Roulette." This smart bomb of a song was written concurrent with the Three Mile Island incident and Springsteen's participation in the No Nukes concerts, but its paranoia-laced narrative extends to the very heart of working-class suburban alienation (Chris Carter, are you listening?).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Less dark but no less driving rockers include the furious "Dollhouse," the rollicking power-pop anthem "Where The Bands Are" and the ringing, growling, irresistible "I Wanna Be With You," which coulda/shoulda been a Top Ten single. All feature the E Street Band (the only bar band ever to play stadiums -- and deserve to) blasting away as hard and loud and dead on the money as they ever have, particularly the crack rhythm section of Garry Tallent (bass) and Max Weinberg (drums).

Hints are here as to the quieter, darker direction Springsteen was heading as the '70s closed out, though. In the downbeat "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," he specifically previews "the meanness in this world" that would loom oppressively over the entirety of 1982's acoustic Nebraska.

Three gripping outtakes from the latter album are also included, most notably the long-lost original acoustic rendition of "Born In The USA." Here, backed only by a spookily reverbed acoustic guitar and sung in the shaky, desperate tones Springsteen originally had in mind, the lyric's power is magnified tenfold. You can't rock out to this version, to be sure, but there's also no mistaking (or twisting) its meaning.

Disc three again features virtually an entire unreleased album, this time 13 outtakes from the sessions that led to the 12-track Born In The USA album. The chief problem with this, the weakest of the four discs, lies in the fact that the global mega-hit Born In The USA is actually one of the lesser albums in Springsteen's exceptional catalogue. Thus, outtakes from it like the rollicking, anthemic "Brothers Under The Bridges ('83)" mostly serve to remind you that its replacement -- in this case, the similarly-themed but musically and lyrically superior "No Surrender" -- was the better choice.

Still, there's plenty to admire: Springsteen's uncharacteristically expansive guitar solo on "My Love Will Not Let You Down," the fat, sweet horn arrangement that propels "Lion's Den," the infectious melody of "Rockaway The Days," and the easy, confident lyricism of quite possibly the best country-folk tune of his career, "This Hard Land" (a 1995 re-recording of which appeared on Greatest Hits).

The Tunnel Of Love-era songs that close out disc three reflect the corner Springsteen turned in the mid-'80s toward the more mature, introspective work he's produced since. The largely acoustic songs revolve around love and family, the muted instrumentation focusing even more attention on the strong emotional notes he hits in the lyrics. "The Wish" in particular shines, peeling away the layers of affection spoken and unspoken between Springsteen and his mother, his number one fan and the purchaser in the first verse of his first guitar. It's another very strong number that just wouldn't have fit thematically on the album he released during the period when it was recorded.

Disc four opens with Springsteen rocking out Human Touch-style on a couple of 1990 numbers that show off his under-appreciated guitar playing but don't go anywhere special lyrically. As he has increasingly done in his later work, he saves his best ideas for the quieter songs that follow.

"Gave It A Name," written in '92 but re-recorded by Springsteen just this August, adds power to its message about facing up to guilt with a spare arrangement and his coiled, intense delivery. "Sad Eyes" is a revelation, with Springsteen's falsetto vocal on the chorus propelling this delicate love song onto a whole new plane of soulfulness (throw this one onto the adult contemporary charts and my bet is it would find a very happy home...). "Loose Change," another of the real sleepers here, offers a deceptively simple, moving narrative story-song capturing the quiet despair that envelops the lonely as life wears on toward middle age.

Towards the end Springsteen casually tosses off three more gems. First is "Happy," a surprisingly (and correctly) restrained song that marks the completion of the emotional journey taken by the restless, wild-eyed romantic street kid who started out this set to the mature, confident and whole husband and father who closes it. Second is his deliriously passionate gospel ballad (and Greatest Hits outtake) "Back In Your Arms."

Third, and closing out the set, is the 1995 The Ghost Of Tom Joad outtake "Brothers Under The Bridge," in which the similarly titled 1983 tune is transformed from a "boys partying on the highway" rocker into a riveting acoustic portrait of homeless veterans carving out the tiniest of existences under a bridge in the desert. How it was beaten out by that album's inexplicably lightweight closer ("My Best Was Never Good Enough"), only the Boss himself could possibly explain.

In the end, Tracks unfolds like the soundtrack to a career, touching on every phase Springsteen's traveled through, revealing new information about how his creative process works, while reviewing from a new angle the steady evolution of his stylistic and thematic approaches. But -- as its author surely intended -- it does even more than that. If anyone still needed proof that 1999 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Springsteen is one of the great ones, here it is: taken as a whole, this sprawling 66-song set of quote-unquote leftovers blows the doors off just about anything else on the shelves today.

Rating: A-

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© 1998 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.