CK Retro Review: Bruce Springsteen’s Top 15 “Leftover” SongsPosted: June 9, 2014
We’ve covered Bruce Springsteen’s studio albums and the mammoth collection Tracks in this space for the past several weeks. Yet there is still more to debate: Movie songs, songs from his Darkness On The Edge Of Town extras album The Promise, various tracks that found their way to Greatest Hits releases, and some other odds and sods that lesser artists would love to have as their singles. With that in mind, here is a song-by-song review of the best of the rest.
15. “Blood Brothers”- This song from the Greatest Hits sessions in 1995 follows “Backstreets” and “Bobby Jean” in the proud line of Springsteen tracks exploring the difficulties of sustaining friendships through time and circumstance. With the E Street Band reuniting after some acrimony during the “Other Band” years, this was clearly a topic on Bruce’s mind, and he expands upon it with tenderness and honesty.
14. “Dead Man Walkin’”- From the Tim Robbins-directed, Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon-starring drama, Springsteen’s title song is probably more admirable than likable, which, comes to think of it, makes it a good fit for the film. Still, singing in his gruffest voice in a downcast folk backdrop, Bruce certainly gets inside the head and heart of this character.
13. “Fire”- The studio version that finally surfaced on The Promise is the basis for this rating; too bad that it doesn’t capture the sexy energy of some of Springsteen’s live takes on the song. Nonetheless, this is Bruce’s songwriting at its loosest and catchiest, which is what makes it such a good candidate for cover versions.
12. “The Way”- Whereas many of the songs on The Promise were severe departures from the ones that made it onto Darkness, this brooder included as a hidden track at the end of Disc 2 of the collection would have been a good fit for that 1978 classic. Even though it’s ostensibly a love song, the intensity of Springsteen’s vocal and the unreleased tension of the music might have served the finished album even better than the open wounds exposed on “Streets Of Fire” or “Something In The Night.”
11. “Seeds”- This is an oddity among Springsteen tracks in that it was never given a studio reading (at least not one that’s been released.) Maybe it’s because Bruce knew he couldn’t improve upon the furious live reading captured on Live 1975-85. The subject matter anticipates the social concerns, including income inequity and homelessness, found on The Ghost Of Tom Joad. The high point comes when Springsteen bellows out, “Well I swear if I could spare the spit/I’d lay one on your shiny chrome/And send you on your way back home.”
10. “Murder Incorporated”- What better way to work any accumulated rust on the E Street Band than with this muscular rocker featuring moaning backing vocals, Springsteen’s grungiest guitar, and a Clarence Clemons sax solo that pierces the night air. I’ve always heard the lyrics as more symbolic than literal, though symbolic of what I’m not sure. They sound great anyway, especially amidst the band in full swagger.
9. “The Fever”- While I can’t agree with those who feel like this is Springsteen’s great lost masterpiece, it does manage to hold your attention through all the stops and starts and jazzy instrumental touches. Plus, it’s one of Springsteen’s most convincing soul-man vocals in his catalog, an expression of pure desire that can hang with the best of any of his 60’s idols.
8. “Rendezvous”- The Promise was marketed as a sort of alternative history for Springsteen, wondering what if he had aimed directly for the pop charts with his fifth studio album. In truth, other than songs that had already proven themselves through cover hits, I’m not sure you can make the case that any of those songs had real pop legs. Except “Rendezvous”, that is, as efficient a delivery system for ear candy as any of Springsteen’s actual chart hits.
7. “Secret Garden”- I feel like this gets underrated a bit because of the annoying Jerry Maguire version that brought it back to radio airwaves a few years after the fact. The original incarnation doesn’t need any help to captivate, riding high as it does on Bruce’s thoughtful meditation on the ever-loving unknowability of the female of the species and Clarence’s gorgeous solo at the end. Smooth and lovely all the way.
6. “Because The Night”- Again, the ranking is based on The Promise version, which, truth be told, lumbers a bit in the early portions of the song, a problem that several live renditions avoid. Still, this is raw material that would soar in just about any version, and, sure enough, from the instrumental break, to the crazy, flamenco-like run-up to the finish, to the key change for that desperate final refrain, it’s unassailable. Patti Smith gets the nod for the definitive take, but Bruce nails the lustful essence of the song nearly as well.
5. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”-Trad-rocker Dave Edmunds got first crack at this and did a predictably bang-up job on the Chuck Berryish rambler. But Springsteen’s own take brims with reckless abandon, featuring the E Street Band barreling ahead at breakneck speed and going for pure adrenaline instead of emotion. Springsteen’s lyrics are filled with hilarious details, combining with the revved-up music to make this the most invigorating tale of murder and family abandonment you’ll ever hear.
4. “Ain’t Good Enough For You”- Of course it wouldn’t have fit with Darkness, but this jovial tale of a hard-luck suitor easily could have slipped onto The River. On that album, its screwball humor and musical lightness would have been a smooth fit. The E Street Band has that rare ability to sound loose without losing control, and this song is a prime example of that phenomenon. I wonder if Bruce had any inclination that Jimmy Iovine, who gets the shout-out here, would hit it quite as cool as he actually ended up doing; dude practically owns Apple these days.
3. “None But The Brave”- Springsteen takes an old movie title here and makes it work as a symbol for the kind of fortitude it requires to get out of a certain kind of small-town dead end. And even then, it might not be enough, since the doomed girl at the heart of this moving narrative seems like she never had a chance. The music is stirring, led by Springsteen’s skyscraping solo and Clarence’s empathetic accompaniment. Empathy is the key here, since the narrator’s broken heart about the girl’s fate is what really gets you about this one.
2. “Streets Of Philadelphia”- Bruce rose to the occasion heroically here, writing a song about an issue that could have tripped up even the most heartfelt of attempts through its sheer complexity. So Springsteen boils it down to one person asking another for simple human kindness, and suddenly it does seem that simple. The stark yet persistent rhythmic backing plays well off the somber synthesizers. Bruce wisely underplays the vocals, knowing his words would carry enough emotional impact without embellishment. Somehow the fact that the song rallied Springsteen from a fallow point in his career seems trivial considering how brave and impactful the song turned out to be on a wider scope.
1. “The Promise”- Forget the version on the album named after it; it sounds draggy and strung-out. Better to seek out the version on 18 Tracks, which features Springsteen, in a husky, dejected drawl, alone with just a piano as accompaniment. In my opinion, the song works better in this fashion, the retrospection and regret of an older man looking back at the shattered dreams, both his and his friends’, littering the highway behind him. Sometimes, when the lyrics are this piercing and the melody so bittersweet, there is really no need to present a song in anything but the simplest manner. The 18 Tracks version of “The Promise” proves this in breathtaking, heartbreaking fashion.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, arrives on June 16, but you can pre-order now at all major online booksellers.)