?Tracks' shows Springteen still on the search

Knight Ridder Newspapers, 1998-11, by: Tom Moon
A sample lyric from ``Happy,'' one of 55 previously unreleased selections on ``Bruce Springsteen: Tracks'': ``Lost and running beneath a million dead stars. / Tonight let's shed our skins and slip these bars.'' Are these the words of the boyish Bruce, the Jersey shore rocker who set off decades ago on a hellfire mission to find out ``if love is real''? Are they from the more mature Bruce, who chronicled ordinary people bumping up against their own limitations? Or is this the musing of the middle-age father, whose recent works have been somber allegories and earthy reflections on love and loss?

It's one of the revelations of ``Tracks'' (Columbia, 3-1/2 stars), which arrives in stores Tuesday, that ``Happy'' could be the product of any of Springsteen's incarnations. Recorded in 1992 during sessions for ``Human Touch'' and ``Lucky Town,'' it's got those timeless Springsteen signifiers: the yearning to escape from the mundane, the soul-searching followed by a declaration of devotion. He could have written it after ``Thunder Road,'' on the 1975 ``Born to Run.'' Or ``Hungry Heart'' from 1980's ``The River.'' Or ``Two Faces,'' released on ``Tunnel of Love'' in 1987.

Like much of the material on this career-spanning four-disc anthology, ``Happy'' offers proof of what those who love Springsteen already know: That he's spent the last 25 years working out elaborate, bloodthirsty, bracingly honest variations on the theme of transformation.

His characters pursue love in the frantic hope that it will reverse their luck and redeem their sins. They bust out of two-lane towns with only a few dollars in their pockets, determined to make a fresh start. They do everything humans can do to change their circumstances. They're ordinary folks, not mythic figures or celluloid heroes. In the early days, they were cocksure, car-obsessed kids eager to learn the ways of the world. Later, they were men whose experiences made them doubt their own shadows. But all have the same motivation: Sensing the metaphysical chains that enslave them, they embark on epic journeys and outlandish schemes of escape. Even a vague destination, such as ``that place where we really wanna go,'' is enough.

On his 11 records and in scores of songs that didn't make the initial cut, Springsteen articulated that formless yearning in simple phrases -- ``everybody's got a hungry heart'' -- then whipped it into heroic music, a monumental sound that mowed down obstacles and held out the hope that any situation can be turned around, no matter how dire. He hammered at his pet theme with plain-spoken metaphors more typical of great novels than rock songs, and though he often returned to the same chord sequences and melody patterns, when all the elements collided, the quest somehow became significant again. Album after album -- and now outtake after outtake -- his edge-seeking outsiders travel the same sad highways looking for shreds of insight, and still the chance to ride along is irresistible.

``Tracks'' follows Springsteen's characters down some of the winding roads his albums didn't take. It's a secret history, a compendium of insightful near-misses and telling footnotes. It's also one of the most unusual documents in this age of anthologies. Unlike the vault projects of most veterans, which consist of a few middling selections rejected long ago, ``Tracks'' is a trove of material that neatly corresponds to the thoroughly dissected classics of Springsteen's catalog. It starts with the singer's audition for famed producer John Hammond, and extends right up to August of this year, when he recorded the brooding ``Gave It a Name.'' In between are grand story-songs, bits of streetcorner wisdom and conversations with the angels, discards that would be top-shelf stuff from anyone else.

Some germs of familiar ideas are here. Among the few outtakes from 1982's ``Nebraska'' is a harrowing solo treatment of ``Born in the U.S.A.'' that casts the song in a new light, with Springsteen employing scalpel precision rather than the bellowing bigness of the 1984 hit. Some of the folks who populate the composer's well-known odes also haunt these ``lesser'' works: The Janey in ``Janey Don't You Lose Heart'' sounds like the same crazy girl we know from ``Spirits in the Night.''

The quantity of material is impressive enough: For a while there in the late '70s and early '80s, nobody in rock was more prolific. But it's the quality: The tracks of ``Tracks ''are dauntingly consistant, conclusive proof of Springsteen's legendary perfectionism. These aren't abandoned demos or sketchy mutterings. Most are full-blown productions, with intricate arrangements and carefully cultivated landscapes topped by vocals with the righteous fury of Springsteen's concert performances.

The rejected tracks show how particular Springsteen was about the impression he wanted to leave with each album. In ``Songs'', his just-issued book of lyrics, he explains that during the recording of 1978's ``Darkness on the Edge of Town, ''he paid deliberate attention to the mood he was creating: ``There was a lot of variation in the material we recorded, but I edited out anything I thought broke the album's tension.'' Among the telling trims that turn on ``Tracks'': the haunting piano ballad ``Iceman,'' and the more exuberant ``Rendezvous. Similarly, the tone of resignation that permeates ``The River'' would have been broken by songs he omitted, such as the thumping ``Roulette'' and the sunny ``Be True.''

Much has been made of Springsteen's development as a storyteller, his progression from the resolute optimism of ``Rosalita'' to the stark sketches of economic despair that colored ``Darkness'' and ``The River.'' ``Tracks'' illuminates his parallel musical evolution, from the sprawling suites of ``Born to Run'' to the blunt, hurtling anthems of ``Born in the U.S.A.''; from the buoyant, galumphing shuffles such as 1977's ``Give the Girl a Kiss,'' to compressed, tightly drawn character studies such as ``Rockaway the Days,'' recorded in 1984.

It also makes plain something that the individual albums, particularly the later ones, obscure. For a long time, Springsteen and the E Street Band defined rock and roll with a swaggering stomp that could purr like a well-tuned engine or groan like a drunk facing the light of morning. That sound is ``classic rock'' in the best sense -- music that weaves in all that came before it: traces of the Bo Didley beat and the Chuck Berry bounce, Van Morrison's late-night blues and the earnest, lonesome sorrow of Hank Williams.

When Springsteen and his band were anywhere near that territory -- on ``Tracks,'' some of the majestic, pealing gems include ``Roulette,'' the rock-as-redemption ``Where the Bands Are,'' the anthemic ``I Wanna Be With You'' -- they were untouchable. But when they started chasing trends, as on the scattered attempts at New Wave here, they were laughably out of step.

The most unexpected surprise of ``Tracks ''is its final disc, which gathers outtakes from ``Human Touch'' through the period after Springsteen's most recent recording, 1995's dour, acoustic project, ``The Ghost of Tom Joad.'' If the material on the first three discs doesn't demand a complete re-evaluation of this artist's career, these final selections definitely do: Those who consider Springsteen to be a ``heritage'' artist -- a contented veteran who undertakes a new project only when commissioned, as he did with the downcast ``Streets of Philadelphia'' -- will be surprised at the vibrancy of the throttling ``Leavin' Train'' and ``Seven Angels,'' the bittersweet soul-singer understatement of ``Trouble in Paradise,'' the taut bar-band reggae of ``Part Man Part Monkey.''

These songs and others suggest something remarkable about Springsteen: After all these years, he's still on the search. His characters may be extolling happiness rather than charging impulsively down a boundless Thunder Road, but they're still nagged by the big questions, still waiting for that determining moment, still wanting to know if love is real.