Bruce Springsteen leans on the hood of a Ford convertible on the cover of his long-lost album “The Promise,” out today. A dirt track stretches to the gray horizon, heavy with ominous clouds.
The image aptly reflects the music.
“Born to Run” in 1975 opened with “Thunder Road” and its declaration: “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win.”
Then came frustration. At the peak of his powers, “the Boss” was caught in a dispute with his former manager Mike Appel and effectively barred from the studio until 1977.
Springsteen and the E Street Band worked up more than 70 songs. Only 10 showed up on their next release, the downbeat “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978). They stripped back the wordy lyrics and ditched anything that didn’t fit the theme of broken dreams and hearts.
In the three decades since, a few of the shelved numbers were bootlegged, covered by others, played live or included on rarity compilations. Now, we have 21 more on a double CD.
“The Promise” has an emotional title track, months in the making: “When the promise was broken, I cashed in a few of my dreams.” Referencing his earlier work, Springsteen laments “Thunder Road, there’s something dyin’ on the highway tonight.” This orchestral epic was too lush to fit the mood of the Spartan “Darkness.”
“The Promise” features songs that are excellent, just not in tune with “Darkness.” Phil Spectorish walls of sound bolster “Gotta Get That Feeling”; Stax horns blare on “The Brokenhearted”; 1960s pop fuels “Wrong Side of the Street” and “Ain’t Good Enough for You.”
We also can hear his take on ecstatic love songs excluded from “Darkness,” such as “Fire,” covered by the Pointer Sisters, and “Because the Night,” recorded by Patti Smith.
Only the original “Racing in the Street” -- a bloated jam with harmonica and violin -- fails to impress. It was later slowed to a beautiful ballad that sounds teasingly like it’s going to explode with rock rage yet never quite does.
Those wanting to hear both versions of “Racing in the Street” can invest in a box set that includes a new digital remaster of “Darkness.”
The box also adds live videos of the material from 1976-1978. Anyone who saw these shows or is familiar with bootlegs of the excellent concerts from 1978, such as “Piece de Resistance,” will know the gigs were joyous, making the mournful “Darkness” all the more surprising and moving.
Less essentially, the box’s six hours of video include a feature-length documentary by director Thom Zimny, and a 2009 Asbury Park concert version of “Darkness” that will appeal only to dedicated fans.
A more persuasive case can be made by downloading a track like “Rendezvous.” It easily could have fit on “Born to Run,” and still sounds fresh after years in the vaults.
“The Promise” is released today on Columbia, priced at $14. Rating: ****.
The box set “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story” is priced at about $85 for the DVD version or $100 for the Blu-Ray. Rating: ***1/2.
“Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” are available separately at about $7. Rating ****.
Download prices vary across services.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)