When the Boss Went Moral

What is pop music for, if not escape? Its aim is to lift us out of our everyday, our workday, to stoke and coalesce our fantasies about romance or some alternate life, away from the place into which we seem to have detoured. In 1977, when Bruce Springsteen began work on what would become his landmark album, Darkness on The Edge of Town, it was that idea of pop with which he was working. Informed by Elvis, Orbison, and the Brill Building songwriters, Springsteen was penning grand, lovelorn tunes that were easy to relate to.

Springsteen was eager to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder off the popularity of Born to Run and feeling the schism between where his new success placed him and the blue-collar caste from which he rose. This schism is very much the place from which pop is meant to offer escape -- and as the sessions for Darkness progressed, that schism it is what shaped the album. Springsteen channeled that irresolvable place; he wanted to bring that sense of feeling trapped, that underclass discomfort to the fore, and not let up.

The tracks that didn't comport that vision now make up the newly released The Promise, a lost album (of sorts). These 22 tracks are immaculate -- a glut of fine work from The Boss at the dawn of his prime. Some of the tracks here reappear in slightly different forms on Darkness and later albums ("Candy's Boy," "Racing In The Street ('78)," and the opening refrain of "Spanish Eyes" would later appear on "I'm On Fire") It's easy to imagine that some of The Promise's songs could have been landmark hits for Springsteen -- and one wonders why they're absent from Darkness. Sure, Darkness is lean and ready (the album followed Springsteen's conversion to both punk rock and Hank Williams, which informed the sentiment and sounds on the album), and many of these tracks owe large debts to the formalists that shaped radio-rock sensibilities: Spector, Lieber and Stoller, King and Goff. More than their sound, what kept the songs off Darkness is that the story Springsteen wanted to tell with that album was a moral one.

Darkness was an attempt to ask impossibly big questions about life and liberty in America, what it means to be a man, the value of work in a capitalist system, and, as Springsteen explained later, dealing with sin in a good life. He spent five months in the studio with the E Street Band, grinding and honing and glutting, working out the hungry ghosts of his Catholic boyhood, until he found a way to contain them in Darkness' anxious and blazing sides. He refused the gleaming pop tracks and lovelorn balladry that make up The Promise -- he turned "Because The Night" over to Patti Smith -- because he knew they were hits and that they would define him, and that was not what he wanted to be defined by.

Springsteen wanted to be taken in absolute earnest. Whether he were seeking to be rock's beleaguered blue-collar conscience or just wanted to be more than the standard-issue rock star is debatable, but it's safe to assume one doesn't spend years laboring over allegorical language illuminating the spiritual longing of the American underclass if you aren't fully convinced of your own powers. Whether Springsteen was interested in being rock's great moralist is beside the point -- Darkness is what earned him the job.

It's easy to hear now that if any of The Promise's tracks (in these forms) had made it onto Darkness, the record's entire character would have been changed. These are songs about kisses ("Fire," "The Little Things"): 14 of them are about his feelings for a girl, and three of those mention "feeling" and "girl." All this lovin', radio-listenin' and car buildin' on The Promise doesn't emotionally square with a Darkness track like "Adam Raised A Cain" -- a song about shouldering the legacy you inherit from your parents. Even as desperate as "Because The Night" is -- with Springsteen sounding so plaintive and vulnerable -- if it had made it onto Darkness it would have worked against the proud, shy macho he exudes on "Candy's Room." The Promise chronicles the disenfranchisement from the American Dream(TM) ("I lived a secret I shoulda kept to myself/I got drunk one night and I told/ All my life I fought this fight / a fight that no man can ever win / Everyday it just gets harder this dream I'm believing in") and seems like it could have fit on The Promise, but its bathos would have undercut the hope that is Darkness' covenant with the listener.

While The Promise comes as a stand-alone double disc, it's perhaps better to take the album in its other form: sandwiched within the extensive context of the Darkness on The Edge of Town box set, along with reproduction of Springsteen's notebook from the sessions, three CDs (The Promise and Darkness), and three DVDs, including a DVD on the making of Darkness. The DVDs are culled from archival footage from rehearsals and sessions and a vintage concert performance that is just devastating. Springsteen's bright-eyed intent and his commitment to Darkness' message and to his music as well as his belief in the power of music to communicate something so complex -- makes the man seem heroic. By aiming to make such moral music, he made a new mimetic mold. With Springsteen, we have the complete package of all that you'd really want your rock stars to be -- the longing lover man, the prove-it-all-night rock star, and the regular guy bleeding his struggle out, putting all your too-familiar restlessness into a song you'd want to hear a thousand times.

The album's emotional truth mirrors its political one. The Carter era in which Darkness was born was a time when we couldn't buy the lie anymore -- a long, bad war had made that impossible. Song after song is about longing, lost innocence, and consequence. "Racing In The Streets" wafts with reckoning; the tale of good people betraying their better natures and each other, wanting to wash the sin off their hands. Darkness is the album that established Springsteen as the musician who captured the American dilemma; it is the work of someone striving to be that exemplar city on the hill, forever falling shy of its mark.