At this point, 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.
Springsteen was never corrupted per se, but there’s a moral arc to his tale that’s straight out of a Nathaniel West novel. That 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 (Springsteen also added some belated, and dubious, horn-section overdubs to early songs), Tracks is a long, occasionally exhausting drive down the Springsteen highway. More so than his 1995 greatest-hits set, it brings his artistic evolution to Technicolor light. Tracks 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; epics about Jersey winners and losers named Eddie or Zero come tumbling out of his mouth. Gradually, as the E Street Band takes shape, Springsteen starts pruning and paring down his music, without sacrificing any of its power. You can trace his growth by merely looking at his opening lines: ”Well Billy bought a Chevy ’40 coupe deluxe/Chrome wheels, stick shift, give her gas, pop the clutch” (1973’s ”Seaside Bar Song”) is no match for a terser, more striking opener like ”We left the toys out in the yard” in 1979’s ”Roulette,” about a burdened family man who, pushed to the edge, grabs a gun and loses it.
”Roulette,” which weds its hardened lyrics to desperate, pounding E Street rock, is one of many gems scattered amid Tracks. On exposed-nerve rockers like 1982’s ”My Love Will Not Let You Down” and 1979’s ”Bring On the Night,” he’s so desperately attempting to communicate his desire that he can barely catch his breath. The career-isn’t-everything lyrics of 1984’s ”Man at the Top” needed further sharpening, but the arrangement has an effortless, country-tinged flow. Tracks also rescues terrific B sides — like ”Pink Cadillac” and the returning-vet ballad ”Shut Out the Light” — from vinyl-single obscurity.
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. (Frustratingly, little space is given to pre-1977 recordings, like those on last year’s semi-legal bootleg Unearthed.) The fourth disc, mostly leftovers from 1990 to ’92, is pretty much a wash. Having relocated to L.A., Springsteen grappled with changes in both his personal (his divorce from Julianne Phillips) and artistic life (the E Street breakup). The sullen, searching tone of the lyrics is revealing, but the music, played by studio musicians with metronomic sterility, is either sodden, forced, or just repetitive. (And where’s ”Missing,” his rock-noir contribution to the 1995 film The Crossing Guard?) Tracks could have easily been two extremely compact discs. And not to be ultra-nitpicky, but couldn’t someone have thought up a more creative title — and added cut-by-cut annotation?
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. B