The Boss uncovers his 'Tracks' His new boxed set of unreleased songs shows how much care Springsteen took in crafting the albums we all know.

November 08, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

In his book "The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made," critic Dave Marsh writes, "Singles are the essence of rock and roll."

In his view, popular music in the rock era is all about individual songs. True, people are more likely to think "album" instead of "single" when they go out to buy music, especially now that the CD dominates the market. But as Marsh points out, almost nobody just sits down and composes an album, the way someone might write a symphony or a novel or a play.

"However an album is meant to be heard," he writes, "it's inevitably recorded track-by-track, individual songs crafted one at a time."

Between radio and music video, mix tapes and compilation albums, listeners are more likely to know an artist through specific songs than whole albums - even if they haven't bought an actual "single" in years.

Few artists, however, actually think in such terms. They may write songs, but once the recording process gets under way, what they create is albums.

An album isn't just a collection of songs. It's an artistic statement, an acoustical environment, an entity unto itself. There may not be an overriding concept holding it together, but more often than not, a lot of thought goes into deciding what goes on - and what gets left off - any given album.

Just how much thought is made clear in the Bruce Springsteen box set, "Tracks" (Columbia 69475, in stores Tuesday). Although it also includes Springsteen's audition for Columbia Records and a smattering of demos, this four-CD set is made mostly of recordings that didn't make the cut when Springsteen was assembling his albums.

It wasn't that these were lack-luster songs. As he writes in the liner notes: "My albums became a series of choices - what to include, what to leave out? I based my decisions on my creative view at the moment - the subject I was trying to focus on, something musical or emotional I was trying to express."

Springsteen admits this sometimes meant rejecting a great song. As time passed, he found that "a lot of music, including some of my favorite things, remained unreleased." "Tracks" sets those songs free.

This is by no means "The Complete Unreleased Springsteen." Among the missing on "Tracks" are the original versions of "Fire" and "Because the Night," songs Springsteen wrote that became hits for the Pointer Sisters ("Fire") and both Patti Smith and Natalie Merchant ("Because the Night").

But we do get to hear the original version of "Born in the U.S.A.," and that alone is worth the price of the set. Although it eventually became one of Springsteen's biggest hits, "Born in the U.S.A." was originally recorded for - and rejected from - the dark, mostly acoustic solo album, "Nebraska."

It's not hard to hear why Springsteen decided against that early version of the song. In place of the soaring, Celtic-inflected chorus we know now, the original boasted a lean, droning guitar and a bluesy yowl - catchy, it wasn't.

More to the point, it didn't match the mood that "Nebraska" worked so hard to establish. While the angry, disaffected veteran sketched in the lyric fit in well with the losers and loners who populated the album's other songs, the music is a less comfortable fit. In this incarnation, "Born in the U.S.A." is an angry Southern blues, a sound that would have grated against the lonesome drawl of the album's other tunes.

Other choices are less obvious. "Pink Cadillac" was cut in 1983 during the "Born in the U.S.A." sessions but ended up on the B-side to "Dancing in the Dark." Tuneful, infectious and fun, it had the makings of a hit - and indeed was, in 1988, for Natalie Cole.

Why did Springsteen downplay the song? Maybe he felt it was too frivolous to fit comfortably among the big-issue songs of the "Born in the U.S.A." album. Or perhaps he figured that, after "Cadillac Ranch" from "The River," he'd met his quota for Cadillac songs.

For many fans, unearthing such gems will surely be the greatest pleasure of sifting through "Tracks."

Take "When the Lights Go Out," a driving, soulful meditation on love and trust recorded during the "Human Touch"/"Lucky Town" sessions in 1990. Though it has similarities to the songs Springsteen included on those albums, its sound - kind of a cross between Bobby Womack and Dwight Yoakam - is a revelation.

Hearing it now, I find myself wishing Springsteen had released it on its own - perhaps as an EP with a couple of other unused songs from those sessions.

Of course, back when singles really were the essence of rock and roll, he probably would have. After all, that's what the Beatles did, offering such classics as "Day Tripper" and "Hey Jude" as non-LP singles.

But that era is long past. These days, the CD is the essence of rock and roll, and even leftovers like the ones on "Tracks" are seen not as individual songs, but part of some package or other.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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