Recording of March 1999: Tracks

Columbia CXK 69475 (4 CDs). 1998. Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Plotkin, prods., engs.; Jon Landau, Stevie Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Mike Appel, Jim Cretecos, John Hammond, orig. engs.; Ed Thacker, Bob Clearmountain, Thom Panunzio, remix engs. AAD? TT: 4:13:30
Performance *****
Sonics ****?

Is the fact that Tracks was one of the past year's most powerful collections mean that rock'n'roll has fallen on hard times, or does it simply attest to the depth and power of this Jersey Boy's enduring gifts?

Several listens to this 66-track boxed set of previously unreleased songs (and a few alternate takes)confirm that the man who, early in his career, sang of himself as "the pimp's main prophet" and "a backstreet gambler," is simply in a class of his own. Depending on your tastes, his twin obsessions with being a gut-wrenching poet and a massively entertaining rock'n'roll performer—the man who followed the forlorn Nebraska with the populist Born in the USA—either confirm his artistic overreaching or expand his range. His whole Born to Run New Jersey/New York urban fable either repels you or is—as in my case—an enduring and unforgettable part of your musical education.

To longtime fanatics, most of Tracks will come as no great surprise: almost everything here has been released, albeit on hard-to-find imports and bootlegs. That said, if you've never heard a tune like "Roulette," recorded during The River sessions but unreleased until now, then strap yourself in and get ready to mutter incredulously: "He didn't like that?"

Next to radically improved sonics (compared with the unofficial releases)—courtesy of a triumvirate of some of today's finest engineers—the most compelling reason to make Tracks "Recording of the Month" is the chance to hear Springsteen mature as he works, struggles, cannibalizes himself, rearranges, and generally shapes not only his sound, but also the unique downbound, rust-belt, heartbreak-strewn landscape that is his legacy.

Starting out as a fanciful, word-obsessed folk balladeer prone to get caught up in his own jabberwocky wordplay ("Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat," from "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City," on disc 1), he emerges by the end of disc 4 as a lean, powerful, electric rock'n'roll romantic who knows what his gifts are and how to wield them with gleaming, moving accuracy.

As for why these tracks were left off the original studio albums, it seems that, for the most part, the right choices were made. No matter how much cutting and pasting was performed, a legendary lost track like "Thundercrack" (recorded in 1973) was never going to be a "Rosalita." On the other hand, many of the best tunes on this set, like "Rendezvous" (also from 1973), have been resurrected to be added to live sets throughout Springsteen's career. In some cases, he reused melodies and lyrics whole: "I wanna go out tonight / I wanna find out what I got," from "Iceman" (1977, disc 1) reappeared whole in "Badlands," the lead track of Darkness on the Edge of Town. And "Brothers Under the Bridge" appears here in a 1983 version and a rearrangement from 1995.

Disc 1 opens with the four original guitar-and-voice audition demos Springsteen recorded for John Hammond, Sr. and Columbia Records in 1972, and is filled out with the rest of the pre-Darkness material. Rough-edged ideas that didn't quite pan out, like "Zero and Blind Terry," abound. While a single disc for the early '70s seems a bit miserly, this is exactly the sort of juvenilia that Springsteen the perfectionist wants to keep under wraps.

Disc 2 jumps into the late '70s and early '80s, when, after having been barred from recording for three years due to his lawsuit against first manager Mike Appel, Springsteen poured himself into a recording explosion, some of which appeared on his checkered double album, The River (1980). What was left overbrims with ideas, hooks, and evidence of a songwriter who has suddenly found a confident singing voice. A this point the full-band, theater-filling Springsteen sound was also in full bloom. Chief among the promising orphans here are classic E Street rockers "Take 'Em As They Come" and "Mary Lou." An alternate take of "Born in the USA," and another oft-rescued tune from that era, "Johnny Bye Bye," close out the disc.

Rejected tunes from the Nebraska, Born in the USA, and Tunnel of Love sessions fill disc 3. This was a period of great upheaval, when Springsteen went from saddened lo-fi misanthrope (Nebraska) to arena rock superstar (Born in the USA) to love-gone-sour first-time husband (Tunnel of Love). With certain brilliant exceptions—like the sax-and-organ big-band sound of "Brothers Under the Bridge" and the tender, spare "The Honeymooners"—these songs are less compelling, if still several cuts above what most other artists build entire albums around.

The final disc, all tracks recorded in the '90s following the dissolution of the E Street Band, is the most mixed of the four. Happily married and beyond his youthful street poetics, Springsteen here struggles for context as he tries out different sounds, including an odd but affecting falsetto in the chorus of "Sad Eyes," from 1990's Lucky Town/Human Touch sessions. Tunes like the brash, overheated "Seven Angels" are clearly inferior to what ended up on those two albums, but a song like the mournful keyboard-and-voice "Loose Change" is definitely superior to nonsense like "57 Channels (and nothin' on)," from Human Touch. Disc 4 proves that Springsteen remains a vital songwriter, still years away from running on fumes.

Wonderful as it is, a collection like Tracks raises as many questions as it answers. Few alternate takes are included—perhaps another box will feature that side of things. Reams of new material from all eras remain unreleased. Then there are the miles of tape of his live shows that he and Columbia control. In the end, Tracks is just a taste of the unreleased Bruce. But what intriguing flavors...—Robert Baird