Wall of Sound, 1998-11, by: Gary Graff
That exultant cry you heard a few weeks ago came from the voices of Bruceheads, E Street devotees, Lucky Towners - anyone who has invested some measure of emotional, physical, and financial energy into keeping pace with Bruce Springsteen through his twists and turns of the past 26 years - cheering confirmation of the long-rumbling rumor that he had gone into his overflowing vaults to prepare a box set of unreleased recordings. These "leftovers," after all, have not only defined Springsteen's potency as an artist, but also have drawn a point of demarcation for his fans; step out over that line and you're a true believer, in on the little secrets that make the relationship deeper and richer than just buying the albums and hitting the shows. So, after two decades spent scrounging for bootlegs, trading tapes, and debating which songs really should have been on the albums, we get Tracks, a 66-song, four-CD gathering of Springsteen outtakes, B-sides, and alternate versions. That the project was originally projected to be six CDs gives a sense of just how voluminous his unreleased canon is. Tracks certainly goes beyond the tip of the iceberg, but it also misses its share of gems in favor of lesser pieces, which makes it a fascinating and in places frustrating exercise that is nonetheless a worthy addendum to Springsteen's body of work on the eve of his guaranteed induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There are, of course, many ways to approach Tracks. Not everyone can recite Springsteen's recording history like liturgy, which means the level of revelation provided by this anthology varies based on your level of obsession. It's easy for ardent collectors to forget that most of the world - even fellow Springsteen followers - haven't heard a great deal of this material and will likely be blown away by "Bishop Danced," "Thundercrack," "Frankie," "Roulette," the acoustic "Born in the U.S.A.," or the sweetly autobiographical "The Wish," which have made their way onto many a bootleg. And the fact is that there's plenty of exceptional music spread across Tracks; even at his most pedestrian, Springsteen evokes a depth of feeling and insight into the human condition that's well beyond most
performers' very best work.
Tracks does sprawl quite a bit, in roughly chronological order from Springsteen's 1972 audition demo with legendary A&R man John Hammond to one song, "Give It a Name," recorded last August in his home studio in New Jersey. There's also evidence of a recent touch-up here or there to give the older recordings a fresh polish. Very much sharing the spotlight with Springsteen is the E Street Band, which plays on the vast majority of the first three discs and reminds us what a facile, fluid, and sympathetic unit it was - particularly during the consistently strong period they were recording Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. That only becomes clearer on the fourth disc of '90s recordings, on which an assortment of seasoned studio hands can't quite re-create the E Streeters' spark and drive-not that they're asked to, given the hushed moodiness of most of the material.
For Springsteen, meanwhile, the story that's told on Tracks is one of an ambitious writer who grows from an entertainingly wordy storyteller with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison aspirations ("Bishop Danced," "Santa Ana," "Thundercrack") to the pithy, soul-baring scribe of later songs such as "Trouble in Paradise." In between are his adventures as both tender balladeer and raucous barroom rocker - the latter is chronicled particularly well with the charged slam 'n' bam of "Give the Girl a Kiss," "Where the Bands Are," "Loose Ends," and "Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own." The group immerses itself in soul for "Don't Look Back" and "Lion's Den," while "Dollhouse" and "Living on the Edge of the World" could well have been the work of Springsteen's then-labelmate Elvis Costello. And the 1983 version of "Brothers Under the Bridges" is the kind of spirited, "No Surrender"-style anthem that Springsteen seems able to produce with consistently stirring results.
Bruceophiles will certainly find several tunes that are new even to them, such as the moody "Wages of Sin," the vivid character study "Car Wash," the rootsy "Rockaway the Days," and "The Honeymooners," a sweet, evocative remembrance of Springsteen's first wedding, to actress Julianne Phillips. And the fourth disc is brimming with heretofore unknown outtakes from the Human Touch and Lucky Town sessions - although most of it, save perhaps the aforementioned "Trouble in Paradise" and the disquieting "Give It a Name," deserved to be set aside. This is, however, some of Springsteen's most personal and experimental material; the problem is that several of the tracks on disc four represent the same experiment being pursued over a series of songs.
A number of well-known B-sides also wind up on Tracks - "Pink Cadillac," "Stand on It" (albeit with an extra verse), "Shut Out the Light," and "Be True" (along with its precursor, "Mary Lou" - though the odd inclusion isn't necessarily a good thing). From the hardcore collector's standpoint, a disturbing number of key selections are absent: the Darkness outtake "The Promise," which Bruce biographer Dave Marsh waxes on at length in his book Born To Run; Springsteen's renditions of "The Fever" and "Because the Night," later given to Southside Johnny and Patti Smith, respectively; the sweet River-era romance tale "Cindy"; "County Fair," a plaintive, aural landscape painting left off B.I.U.S.A.; "Missing," recorded for Sean Penn's film The Crossing Guard; and full-band versions of songs that wound up in acoustic versions on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. To exclude those in favor of previously available songs - or a handful of the set's weaker or redundant rarities - prevents Tracks from being a truly career-defining work. But as you finger your credit card, the only important question is whether Tracks is worth buying. And it is, absolutely. Precious few artists can reach into their vaults and pull out this much high-quality material. And for what it doesn't have, there's always those bootlegs, or, preferably, a More Tracks somewhere down the line.