Even Springsteen's throwaways are keepers

The Dallas Morning Herald, 1998-11-06, by: Thor Christensen
Has ``The Boss'' been demoted? An artist who spent the '70s and '80s in the penthouse office -- enjoying massive record sales and equally massive critical acclaim -- Bruce Springsteen now finds himself sweeping out the closets. He hasn't had a hit single since 1994's ``Streets of Philadelphia.'' His last album -- the chilling, folk-oriented ``The Ghost of Tom Joad'' -- sold less than 600,000 copies. And ``Tracks,'' a four-CD box set that hits stores Tuesday, is the sort of vault-cleaning rarities album you usually see only after an artist has died.

But even if he's no longer a stadium-packing rock demigod, Springsteen reminds us on ``Tracks'' just how remarkable his glory days were. Most rarities albums are packed with fizzled experiments, ho-hum alternate versions and sundry tunes that just weren't strong enough to put out. But what sets Tracks apart is the volume of songs that are as good as -- if not better than -- tunes that made it on to landmark albums such as Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A.

Granted, Springsteen fanatics have heard some of these songs on bootleg albums, and 10 of the 66 tracks have been available as B-sides. But a sizable chunk of ``Tracks'' will take even the most diehard collectors by surprise. The box set does an excellent job of mapping Springsteen's career trajectory, from bard of the boardwalk to blue-collar rock 'n' roll Everyman to dour folk balladeer. And while it doesn't give us many surprises or much historical insight -- the 54-page CD booklet is heavy on photos and lyrics but short on liner notes -- ``Tracks'' does offer a slightly more focused picture of how Springsteen set himself apart from the Bob Segers and John Mellencamps of the world.

The set kicks off in 1972 with the singer auditioning for CBS talent scout John Hammond. When CBS signed Springsteen, they envisioned him as New Jersey's folk-singing answer to Bob Dylan -- a vision brought to life here in demo folk versions of ``Mary Queen of Arkansas'' and ``It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City.'' But his singing on these early songs also shows he learned a thing or two from Neil Young -- which might explain the incessant melancholia that defined his later work.

Yet the most compelling moments on disc one arrive when Springsteen ditches the folk singer guise, hires a band, and starts fusing Memphis and Motown with Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. The 1974 outtake ``So Young and in Love'' sounds like some long-lost Temptations classic, and you can hear the seeds of ``Rosalita'' starting to grow in ``Zero and Blind Terry,'' ``Seaside Bar Song'' and the dramatic, eight-minute ``Thundercrack,'' his old show-closer.

Disc two fast-forwards to the late '70s and early '80s, a fertile period in which he released ``Darkness on the Edge of Town'' and ``The River'' and began working on `Nebraska'' and his best-selling album, ``Born in the U.S.A.'' Most of the outtakes from ``The River'' are inspired, from soulful rockers such as ``Restless Nights'' and ``Loose Ends'' to goofy joy rides such as ``Where the Bands Are'' to somber stories such as ``A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh).'' In retrospect, he should have turned ``The River'' into a triple album instead of a double.

But the real revelation on disc two is an echo-laden solo acoustic version of ``Born in the U.S.A.,'' recorded in early '82 when Springsteen was making the dark, stripped-down ``Nebraska.'' Instead of the synth-laden official version -- widely misread as a flag-waving anthem -- this ``Born'' is a brooding folk song sung by a man with the devil to pay.

The end of disc two and disc three sheds light on why 1984's ``Born in the U.S.A.'' became such a runaway success. Springsteen and the E Street Band seemed incapable of making a bad song during this period. The U.S.A. outtakes show the singer traveling full speed into the dark fringes of American society: ``Rockaway the Days'' tells the story of a freed prisoner who meets an untimely fate; ``Shut Out the Light'' paints a haunting portrait of a returning soldier who may or may not be trying to kill himself; and in ``This Hard Land,'' a brother and sister drift around the country, trying in vain to find work and a purpose in life. After hearing songs like these, it's obvious why Springsteen didn't release ``TV Movie'' -- a hilarious, Jerry Lee Lewis-style romp about having your life story turned into boob-tube fodder. His work had grown so serious that ``TV'' simply wouldn't have jibed.

``Tracks'' unravels a bit on the fourth and final CD, composed mostly of outtakes from Springsteen's dual 1992 releases, ``Human Touch'' and ``Lucky Town.'' By the end of the '80s, the singer had split with the E Street Band and divorced his movie-actress wife, Julianne Phillips -- an event he seems to hint at in the 1989 outtake ``Trouble in Paradise.''

The trouble extended to his music as well. Some of his songs grew softer, slicker and increasingly mundane. ``Part Man, Part Monkey'' took a welcome side trip into reggae-field hard rock, but without the E Street Band spurring him on, Springsteen was mostly drifting into an easy-listening netherworld.

He regained his edge in 1995 with ``The Ghost of Tom Joad,'' a brilliant folk album that dug deep into the grim realities of racism and poverty (unfortunately, no ``Tom Joad'' outtakes show up on ``Tracks''). But by then, the pop world had moved on to newer sounds and younger heroes.

At 49, Springsteen has long passed the point where he can sell out football stadiums or sell 20 million copies of an album -- as he did with Born in the U.S.A. If you're under 20, Springsteen's brand of rock must seem as ancient as a hand-cranked car engine. But while ``Tracks'' doesn't make predictions about the future, the glimpse into the past serves as a potent reminder: Never rule out a guy whose rejects sound like masterpieces.