Monday, December 27, 2010

The Promise--Bruce Springsteen

Note: this article owes a great deal to Joe Posnanski's piece on Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the meaning of The Promise.  You can find this article here: Joe Blogs: The Promise

After Bruce Springsteen released his seminal 1975 album, Born to Run, it began a three-year gap in released material for "The Boss."  Although Springsteen toured extensively during this period, he was kept out of the studio for a year because of a legal battle with manager Mike Appel.  However, the main reason for the substantial wait between BTR and 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town was Springsteen's change in musical direction.  BTR continued the vivid imagery of its predecessor, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, while making a fresh commentary on the dreams of youth.  The album is fluid and dreamy throughout, with an exuberance that is thoroughly hopeful and uplifting.  Yet after three years of grappling with lawsuits and newfound stardom, Bruce changed his style completely for Darkness.  The album is gritty, complete with stripped-down arrangements, searing, almost cacophonic, guitar solos, and brooding lyrics.  Darkness is a stark rejection of the American dream articulated in BTR, and it comes as a shock after hearing Springsteen's first three albums.  The listener has, for decades, longed for a bridge between these dramatically different works.  Finally, after thirty years of waiting, Bruce gives everyone a chance to cross that bridge in the sprawling yet cohesive double album, The Promise.

     The Promise is genealogically complex throughout in that it utilizes several different styles of rock and roots music.  Like Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St., or The White Album, The Promise displays the full range of an artist's musical influences.  In addition to his continued use of jazz and rock themes, Bruce writes in the liner notes that he was continuing his close listen of his collection of 50s and 60s rock and soul records that he made prior to each of his first three albums.  We see this influence shine through in several places.  Take "Racing in the Street ('78)," which quotes the chorus of "Dancing in the Streets," originally recorded by Martha and the Vandellas.  This version of "Racing in the Streets" differs dramatically from the one found on Darkness, featuring a full, jubilant instrumental section complete with a folk-tinged violin solo from stringed-instrument virtuoso David Lindley.  Lindley also contributes fiddle on "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)," and his playing is critical in recapturing the folk roots of Springsteen's first two albums.

     The 50s and 60s theme continues on "Fire."  Bruce originally wrote this tune for Elvis Presley, who died before he could record it, and later sent the hit to the Pointer Sisters.  The version on The Promise is very much in the Elvis tradition, with Bruce singing in a Presley-esque style that is simultaneously humorous and emotional.  Along with several subtle references to the great 50s and 60s recordings, Springsteen makes his final tribute in the song "Talk to Me" near the end of the Disc Two.  The song bears a strong resemblance to "It Won't Be Long," one of the first Lennon/McCartney compositions, found on 1963's With the Beatles.  Between the driving two chord rhythm and the "yeah yeah" call-and-response, "Talk to Me" shows that Bruce drew some serious musical influence from the Fab Four.

   Bruce continues his stroll through the traditions of rock n' roll with musical and lyrical references to Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Jimi Hendrix, and Lou Reed (see "One Way Street" for the latter two).  As Bruce admits, he also adopts ideas from the recent "punk explosion."  Although The Promise does not have as much slashing punk rock heritage as Darkness, it still contains plenty of grit to pique the interest of the punk enthusiast.  Take "Because the Night," a song that Bruce gave up to punk pioneer Patti Smith for her to cut it as her biggest hit.  Or listen to "Ain't Good Enough for You," which combines simple punk beats with 50s rhythm to create a brand of "punk pop" that still exists on today's garage rock scene.  Never once on The Promise does Bruce play a song that is squarely within one genre of music.  Rather, he weaves several genres, sounds, and eras together to create one unified tapestry of music that is both rich in heritage and uniquely Bruce's.  The Promise serves as a brilliant, focused tribute to the past while maintaining a sound of its own.

   Not only is the album a look into the past, it is also a connection of two musical themes for Springsteen.  The Promise shows Bruce's gradual rejection of the commercial viability that he found with BTR, which contained several instant classics.  The Promise resurrects hit songs like "Because the Night" and "Fire" that Bruce refused to release on Darkness.  Bruce wrote and gave away plenty of songs that don't find their way onto this newest album.  He was almost too good of a hit-maker, and it took him awhile to shed this cloak and merge into tougher songwriting.  The Promise shows this transformation, ripping apart the dreamscape that Bruce create in his first albums.  No longer do we hear romantic stories of middle America.  We move from a "barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a dodge" to Candy, a prostitute who gets calls from men who bring her toys.  In a larger sense, The Promise squashes the dreams of childhood and moves toward the darker, realist American dream that Bruce displays in subsequent albums.

     Yet The Promise is not as bleak as Darkness.  Look at songs like "Racing in the Street" or "Candy's Boy," which are both early versions of eventual Darkness tunes.  "Racing" is recorded in the same style as BTR, with rich, rock n' roll orchestral qualities.  The tune that ends up on the 1978 album is completely stripped of accompaniment and sung in a near-whisper.  The version from The Promise evokes the joy of the original Martha and the Vandellas recording, whereas the Darkness does no such thing.  "Candy's Boy" changes from a gliding mid-tempo pop tune to "Candy's Room" an ominous, Max Weinberg-led rocker.  The Promise is not the dreamy record that Bruce released with BTR.  Maybe the arrangements are tighter, maybe the mixing is different, or maybe Bruce and Miami Steve just told the E Street Band to play with sorrow instead of joy.  But The Promise reaches the gritty depths of Darkness more than BTR ever did.

    The crown jewel of The Promise is the title track, which is the clearest transition between his early music (particularly "Thunder Road") and his later albums like Darkness or Nebraska.  Coming as the second-to-last track on the album, "The Promise" is also the climax of the record, showing what all the music has been leading towards.  Bruce reintroduces characters from his second album, like Johnny (Spanish Johnny from "Incident on 57th Street) and Billy (Wild Billy or Big Balls Billy of "Rosalita").  However, far from the legendary characters of Asbury Park, the two have been resigned to working "in a factory" or "uptown."  Bruce references "Thunder Road" directly during the song, which talks about living in "a town full of losers" and "pulling out of here to win."  Yet, by the time Springsteen writes "The Promise," he comes to the conclusion that he has been "fighting a fight that no man can ever win."  Bruce believes there is a promise in the American dream of all the hopes of youth coming true.  He feels that people eventually realize that this promise is broken as one becomes older.  He sings mournfully about the "Thunder Road" that he spoke about so ecstatically on BTR.  Bruce concludes that the promise of the American dream has been broken, and he throws his jeans in disgust.  The song, and, ultimately, the album, acts as a swan song to the dreams of youth.  Bruce's three albums feel like skydiving, sheer adrenaline and wonder.  The Promise is the pulling of the cord that brings listeners floating back to reality.

     Springsteen's musical influence on The Promise is clear and used brilliantly, and his message is concise throughout.  It completes the story told in Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Yet, like any grand statement about the American dream, it is easy to call his conclusions into question.  Bruce accurately describes the sobering experience of maturing in the modern world.  As a senior in college, my worldview is completely different now than it was four years ago.  I am more cynical than ever about the world surrounding me, and any dream I have about my future comes with some qualification or questioning.  As Springsteen points out, life is not as easy as we fancies it as children.  No matter how intelligent or talented you might be, life will never be easy at any stage.  Therefore, it is easy to understand where Bruce is coming from The Promise.  The promise that we will realize our dreams is often broken, and that fact leads to question why that promise was ever made in the first place.

    But maybe, just maybe, we should be more hopeful than Springsteen lets on.  The promise, while not always sincere, gives us something to strive for and look forward to.  The promise pushes onward and makes us hang on to our heartfelt dreams as long as possible.  Sure, I am heading into final semester of school, and I am more jaded than ever before.  Yet I still hold onto those dreams of the past.  Hell, if I was bitter about broken promises, I would resign any creative ambition I have and go into the standard post-liberal arts degree pursuit of law school or investment banking.  But I am not doing that.  Something tells me that the American dream can keep its promise to me if I continue to work hard at something I love.  As I see it, that's the only shot any of us have at fulfillment in life, and it requires a belief in the idealistic, self-determinist American dream that Springsteen claims is impossible for most.  The Promise might be the most real portrayal of America in rock music, but the listener should understand that the promise of the American dream Bruce leaves for dead is still worth seeking.

Final Grade: Yeah, we all hate grades.  However, I want to use grades less as a tool for judging an album (I already did that in my review) and more as a guide to the listener, who only has so much time and money to invest in music.  I give The Promise an A-  It is certainly worth hearing, but it is also better as part of the series of Bruce's work than it is as a stand-alone album.

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