"Open your eyes and look down your illusions," a youthful Bruce Springsteen sings on Wrong Side of the Street, a jubilant blast of rock and soul salvation unearthed for a new album called The Promise that re-examines one of the most creatively fruitful eras of The Boss's career.
The time was 1978, and Born to Run was three years old. Legal entanglements sprouting from a split with former manager Mike Appel had prevented any kind of recorded follow-up. But the songs kept coming — songs that were hardened reality checks when compared to Born to Run's fanciful tales of escape. What finally surfaced that summer was, arguably, Springsteen's greatest work, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Still immersed in the zeal and urgency of youth but with a wary eye to an uncertain and, at times, unwelcome future, Darkness made good on every pop promise made on Born to Run.
The Promise scans the considerable amount of prime material left off of Darkness. It's available in several formats, including a massive notebook-style package with loads of DVDs full of '78-era performances and a full 2009 live version of Darkness. What we're examining here is a double-disc set devoted exclusively to the unreleased studio material.
There are a few blueprints in the album to suggest what was coming on Darkness, beginning with a rockier take on the '78 record's greatest work, Racing in the Street. It comes adorned with a tougher tempo wrapped in piano and harmonica, making the tune sound like a second cousin to Born to Run's Backstreets. Similarly, Candy's Boy is a summery prelude to Darkness' Candy's Room, and Come On (Let's Go Tonight) curiously employs the melody that became Factory but with a story line that de-emphasizes the latter's blue-collar theme.
Then we have songs that have popped up in other versions on past collections, including Because the Night and Fire, both of which are presented here in crisp, efficient form. But the real magic of The Promise sits in its overall vibe. Jersey-style boardwalk soul dominates the record, from the piano-led party tunes Ain't Good Enough for You and Save My Love to the regally Dylan-esque ballad Spanish Blue.
The Promise saves its biggest gems until the end, however. Breakaway and the title tune are quiet, uneasy anthems that probably were left off of Darkness because of its thematic and temperamental similarity to Racing in the Street.
But after the heartache and restlessness settle, Springsteen climbs into a cab for City of Night, a wonderfully cool and, dare we say it, happy coda in which the Boss heads to the horizon with cash in his pocket and a smile on his face. It's the golden moment when Darkness comes to light.