A quarter century after he first leapt onto the national stage, the saga of Bruce Springsteen would make potent fodder for one of his own story-songs. To wit: Small-town underdog kid works hard, makes very good, and cashes in — fame, fortune, marriage to a starlet — only to have it all crash down around him. Surrounded by a bushel of temptations (and moving to that symbolically wicked California to boot), he lost his sense of self and longtime band in the process. Only after he’d reevaluated the route he’d taken and purged himself did Springsteen return — playing purer, less grand (but, to these ears, flatter) music, on his “Ghost of Tom Joad” album.
This story lends a narrative drive to “Tracks,” a four-disc, 66-cut boxed set of primarily unreleased Springsteen recordings that serves to both clear the vaults and set the stage for his preordained induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in January.
Arranged chronologically from 1972 through new songs cut this past August, “Tracks” is a long, occasionally exhausting drive down the Springsteen highway. It opens with demos of, among other early songs, “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” On them, we hear the young, frisky Bruce overflowing with energy, passion, ambition, and, most of all, words, acres and acres of them.
“Tracks” wants you to believe that for every first-rate track Springsteen released, another was canned. But the box doesn’t convince you that he and his handlers made many mistakes. “Car Wash,” a slab of rote Jersey-shore rock in which he sings in the voice of a disgruntled worker (“Mister, I hate my boss”), wasn’t good enough for “Born in the U.S.A.” The same for the numerous, repetitive organ grinders Springsteen and the E Streeters cranked out in the late ’70s and early ’80s and unnecessarily resurrected here. The fourth disc, mostly leftovers from 1990 to ’92, is pretty much a wash.
That said, and for all “Tracks”‘ padding, it is disarming to hear rock delivered with such unbridled earnestness and positive energy, gleefully drunk on its own power to elevate musicians and audiences alike. By comparison, what passes for mainstream rock now — Counting Crows and their offspring — sounds narcissistic, scrawny, emotionally guarded. Springsteen himself may never recapture the joie de rock he once had, but Tracks makes you wonder if any of us ever will.