“The alternate route to some of the destinations I travelled to on my records.” Bruce Springsteen
“Every song on Tracks is a lost argument”. Steven Van Zandt.
Strap in, this one is a long one…
In 1998, with eleven studio albums to his name, close to 75% of Springsteen’s work remained in the vaults. His mammoth studio and recording sessions from Darkness on the Edge of Town onward meant that he’d essentially written four albums worth of material for every one that was released. His production and arranging partner for much of this time, Steven Van Zandt, would get frustrated by this practice – especially when he had to work so hard for his own songs – as many of his favourite tracks would end up shelved despite being the sort of thing other acts could make a career from but has referred to this period as Bruce’s “hundred song phase”. Not many artists are capable of such sustained writing periods, let alone when the material was so solidly strong.
When Tracks was released in 1998 it had already been whittled down from six discs of material to four and the 66 tracks ran from Springsteen’s 1972 audition tapes for Columbia through roughly chronological order to the late 90’s, divided up (as illustrated by the covers given to each of those discs inside the box) into what Bruce saw as the sections of his song-writing arc. Given that it came at the end of an otherwise sparse decade for Bruce fans, it was embarrassment of riches; of the songs included a handful had been released as B-Sides, some had leaked out on bootlegs and some had been heard live but never released. Plenty of them though had never even been heard of.
Those audition tapes kick proceedings off but, given the bare-bones approach to their released versions, don’t offer anything other than a passing interest and ‘Bishop Danced’ isn’t all that good if I’m honest. The first disc is made up of out-takes that, for the most part, it’s clear to see why; the songs are good ideas but don’t really make for strong contenders. I couldn’t imagine much debate went into ‘Zero & Blind Terry’ vs ‘Incident on 57th Street’ but the songs are good examples of Bruce working out ideas in the studio, with many a part stripped from one and dropped into another – albeit a couple of decades later with ‘Seaside Bar Song’s “the highway is alive tonight” lyric. But that’s because, up to, and including, the Born To Run sessions, Bruce’s writing hadn’t hit its stride (in terms of prolificacy not quality) and I imagine the constraints put upon him by the record label meant the time to do so wasn’t afforded to him in the way the Appel lawsuit would force it. For once the first disc reaches ‘Rendevous’ and the sublime ‘Iceman‘ we’re jumping into songs from Bruce’s most fertile period and the quality kicks up into a different gear. The leap is noticeable between ‘Linda Let Me Be The One’ and ‘Don’t Look Back’.
Now, in the same way the The Promise represents a lost album, the second and third discs of Tracks are nigh on faultless and could easily make up three classic albums from tracks completely omitted from The River and Born In The USA. Just take the breathless joy of Disc 2 opener ‘Restless Nights’ as Danny Federici whips up a dervish on his keys before Bruce’s guitar rips into it a minute and a half in:
Tracks like ‘Roulette‘, ‘Dolls House’, ‘Where The Bands Are’, ‘Loose Ends‘, ‘Living on the Edge of the World’ are pure, perfect three/four minute pop songs. Van Zandt was aghast that these were shelved – believing an album of these, plus ‘The River’ would be been a great thing. He’s not wrong. ‘Living on the Edge of the World‘ perhaps sounds strange but that’s because Bruce would take a few of it’s lines and strap them to altogether different beats for Nebraska‘s ‘Open All Night’ and ‘State Trooper’. Oh and there’s the absolute classic ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’ which just bounds along on a stellar beat that surpasses many a released song.
Slipped just before ‘Take ‘Em..’ is a Born In The USA out-take whose existence was previously unknown;
‘Wages of Sin’, another Bruce classic, is the first hint of what’s to come on Disc 3; a wealth of tunes that were recorded between 1982 and 1984 in that protracted recording period that lead to Bruce’s biggest-selling album. As big as that album was, the tracks that didn’t make the cut could easily be put together into an alternative album that would’ve been as good if not better. Just picking a handful of those tracks, say: ‘Wages of Sin, ‘Rockaway the Days‘, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)‘, ‘Lion’s Den’ will give you a strong album, if you were to add ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down‘, which breezes and rocks past plenty like on Born In The USA then you’ve got a classic and that’s without even mentioning another previously unheard of song – ‘Brothers Under The Bridges ’83’:
More than an ‘alternate route’ there’s alternate albums here. Oddly enough, Bruce even toyed with yet another album approach between Nebraska and …USA. Buoyed by the positive reception Nebraska‘s stripped-down sound received he headed back and laid down a few more tracks in a similar bare-bones, minimal approach before abandoning and heading back into the studio with the full band. Of those recorded during those sessions the soft tribute to Elvis, ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ would end up released as b-sides for ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ before their inclusion on Tracks.
It’s not only ..USA that could’ve taken a different theme – just take a look at the difference in themes on those songs recorded during the Tunnel of Love sessions. ‘The Wish‘ is perhaps most known of these- a song Bruce wrote for his mother but felt unable to release officially given its sentimentality – while ‘The Honeymooners’ (a home-recording with the sound of dog barking captured in the background), ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘When You Need Me’ give a different insight to the men & women relationships that album tended to lean toward. Hell, ‘When You Need Me‘, similar in its uncomplicated sentiment as ‘Two For The Road’ is as content as Bruce would get this side of Lucky Town: “When you need me call my name, ’cause without you my life just wouldn’t be the same”.
The final disc loses the momentum a little with a lot of bass-heavy songs cut during the Human Touch sessions weighing it down. “I wrote about half a record on the bass, where you had a note and you had your idea. The only one that made it to release was ‘57 Channels,’”… indeed, and on Disc 4 there’s the remainder of those cuts – all exploring similar themes (internal dialogues working out psychological or relationships as Bruce himself was at the time) but none that really stand out as worthy of going further. That being said I’d rather something like ‘Gave It A Name‘ or ‘When The Lights Go Out’ had seen release over the aforementioned Human Touch cut itself.
There’s still plenty to enjoy, though. In ‘Songs’ he explains that to shake off his writer’s block, Bruce started sessions for Human Touch by experimenting with different styles he “had always liked: soul, rock, pop, R&B”. If you ask me, removed from much of the heavy-handed production that spoilt that album, they shine brighter here. One such song ‘Sad Eyes‘ is a cutting tune that’s better than most released on that album (and features David Sancious who also plays on ‘Part Man, Park Monkey’), ‘Seven Angels’ is back to the rock but undercut with more humour and looseness than anything that made the cut and ‘Gave It A Name’ – the master take couldn’t be found so Bruce and Roy Bittan recut the track in ’98 – is masterful in it’s minimalism. Oh, and there’s also ‘Happy’ the sole out-take from Lucky Town omitted only, I guess, because it shared the “gold and diamond rings…drug to ease the pain that living brings” line with the superior ‘My Beautiful Reward’.
The box is rounded out by the then-latest omissions. ‘Back In Your Arms‘ features the E Street Band and was recorded during the Greatest Hits sessions – like ‘Secret Garden’ it was originally one intended for Bruce’s shelved ‘Philadelphia’-style album – while ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a beautiful out-take that was, exasperatingly when you considered what it could’ve replaced, omitted from The Ghost of Tom Joad and brings the set up to what was then Bruce’s most recent studio sessions. A story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.” It would be performed live after ‘Born in the USA’ or ‘Shut Out The Light’ to place it within Bruce’s Vietnam arc and its one of those songs (like ‘The Promise’) whose live rendering meant fans were puzzled by its omission from the record.
Not everything on Tracks is brilliant but a lot of it is, much of it is very strong and some of the songs are absolute Bruce classics that stand above many in his catalogue. That’s why it’s on this list and why it’s on this list in this place; if I were talking to a Bruce newbie I’d recommend many of the songs on here well before a lot in his catalogue.
While many box-sets merely curate already-released material with a smattering of live cuts or offer up b-sides that are clearly inferior to their As, Tracks represents a much deeper fleshing out of the Springsteen narrative and emphasises just how strong a songwriter he is; even those tracks omitted from his albums piss all over many artist’s hits. Four discs and 66 songs is a lot to get through but it’s worth it. If you’re pressed for time then Discs 2 and 3 contain enough gold to make sure the box is worth of inclusion as an essential addition to a Springsteen collection / discussion.
Highlights: ‘Iceman’, ‘Don’t Look Back,’ ‘Restless Nights’, ‘Roulette’, ‘Take ‘Em as They Come’, ‘Shut Out the Light’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Rockaway the Days’, ‘Brothers Under the Bridges ’83’, ‘Seven Angels’, ‘Gave It A Name,’ ‘Happy’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’
Not-so-highlights: The omission of ‘The Promise’. This actually lead to many a complaint from fans. A new recording of it would be slapped on the single-disc-sampler/cash-in 18 Tracks along with another couple of ‘new old’ tracks – ‘The Fever’ and ‘Trouble River’. 18 Tracks, intended for fans who didn’t fancy the full box, actually fared worse than Tracks in terms of sales and charting; Tracks was something of a hit for Bruce, hitting the Top 30 and shifting plenty of units, defying expectations for a Box Set in much the same way as Live: 1975-85 had a decade earlier.