Review by Gary Graff from Wall of Sound
So, after two decades spent scrounging for bootlegs, trading tapes, and debating which songs really should have been on the albums, we get Tracks, a 66-song, four-CD gathering of Springsteen outtakes, B-sides, and alternate versions. That the project was originally projected to be six CDs gives a sense of just how voluminous his unreleased canon is. Tracks certainly goes beyond the tip of the iceberg, but it also misses its share of gems in favor of lesser pieces, which makes it a fascinating and in places frustrating exercise that is nonetheless a worthy addendum to Springsteen's body of work on the eve of his guaranteed induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There are, of course, many ways to approach Tracks. Not everyone can recite Springsteen's recording history like liturgy, which means the level of revelation provided by this anthology varies based on your level of obsession. It's easy for ardent collectors to forget that most of the world - even fellow Springsteen followers - haven't heard a great deal of this material and will likely be blown away by "Bishop Danced," "Thundercrack," "Frankie," "Roulette," the acoustic "Born in the U.S.A.," or the sweetly autobiographical "The Wish," which have made their way onto many a bootleg. And the fact is that there's plenty of exceptional music spread across Tracks; even at his most pedestrian, Springsteen evokes a depth of feeling and insight into the human condition that's well beyond most performers' very best work.
Tracks does sprawl quite a bit, in roughly chronological order from Springsteen's 1972 audition demo with legendary A&R man John Hammond to one song, "Give It a Name," recorded last August in his home studio in New Jersey. There's also evidence of a recent touch-up here or there to give the older recordings a fresh polish. Very much sharing the spotlight with Springsteen is the E Street Band, which plays on the vast majority of the first three discs and reminds us what a facile, fluid, and sympathetic unit it was - particularly during the consistently strong period they were recording Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. That only becomes clearer on the fourth disc of '90s recordings, on which an assortment of seasoned studio hands can't quite re-create the E Streeters' spark and drive^Śnot that they're asked to, given the hushed moodiness of most of the material.
For Springsteen, meanwhile, the story that's told on Tracks is one of an ambitious writer who grows from an entertainingly wordy storyteller with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison aspirations ("Bishop Danced," "Santa Ana," "Thundercrack") to the pithy, soul-baring scribe of later songs such as "Trouble in Paradise." In between are his adventures as both tender balladeer and raucous barroom rocker - the latter is chronicled particularly well with the charged slam 'n' bam of "Give the Girl a Kiss," "Where the Bands Are," "Loose Ends," and "Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own." The group immerses itself in soul for "Don't Look Back" and "Lion's Den," while "Dollhouse" and "Living on the Edge of the World" could well have been the work of Springsteen's then-labelmate Elvis Costello. And the 1983 version of "Brothers Under the Bridges" is the kind of spirited, "No Surrender"-style anthem that Springsteen seems able to produce with consistently stirring results.
Bruceophiles will certainly find several tunes that are new even to them, such as the moody "Wages of Sin," the vivid character study "Car Wash," the rootsy "Walkaway the Days," and "The Honeymooners," a sweet, evocative remembrance of Springsteen's first wedding, to actress Julianne Phillips. And the fourth disc is brimming with heretofore unknown outtakes from the Human Touch and Lucky Town sessions - although most of it, save perhaps the aforementioned "Trouble in Paradise" and the disquieting "Give It a Name," deserved to be set aside. This is, however, some of Springsteen's most personal and experimental material; the problem is that several of the tracks on disc four represent the same experiment being pursued over a series of songs.
A number of well-known B-sides also wind up on Tracks - "Pink Cadillac," "Stand on It" (albeit with an extra verse), "Shut Out the Light," and "Be True" (along with its precursor, "Mary Lou" - though the odd inclusion isn't necessarily a good thing). From the hardcore collector's standpoint, a disturbing number of key selections are absent: the Darkness outtake "The Promise," which Bruce biographer Dave Marsh waxes on at length in his book Born To Run; Springsteen's renditions of "The Fever" and "Because the Night," later given to Southside Johnny and Patti Smith, respectively; the sweet River-era romance tale "Cindy"; "County Fair," a plaintive, aural landscape painting left off B.I.U.S.A.; "Missing," recorded for Sean Penn's film The Crossing Guard; and full-band versions of songs that wound up in acoustic versions on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. To exclude those in favor of previously available songs - or a handful of the set's weaker or redundant rarities - prevents Tracks from being a truly career-defining work.
But as you finger your credit card, the only important question is whether
Tracks is worth buying. And it is, absolutely. Precious few artists can reach
into their vaults and pull out this much high-quality material. And for what it
doesn't have, there's always those bootlegs, or, preferably, a More Tracks
somewhere down the line.
Review by David Browne from Entertainment Weekly
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.
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