Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Stray Bullet: The River Outtakes

A slow ballad plays. A soft soprano sax solo plays over the music. Then Bruce Springsteen sings: "River blood red with the years. You can flood this valley with a thousand tears. Wash away all that's been found. But you'll never wash away the sound of the stray bullet that shot my baby down." What is it really about? Hell if I know. Was his baby shot point blank? Is the singer certain what's going on in his life? Or does he just ride by night and travel in fear?
On Friday Bruce's latest box set album retrospective, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection will be released officially. The collections have grown ever more expansive:
  • A decade ago, for the 30th anniversary collection for Born To Run: 30th Anniversary Edition it seemed a miracle to include a full video concert from England. But there were no outtakes included.
  • Five years ago, the box set for Darkness On The Edge Of Town included a 2 disc collection of outtakes in addition to various video gems. But the songs that had appeared on "Tracks" or other collections were left behind.
  • This time, it seems that nearly everything has been thrown in. The original "The Ties That Bind" disc. A new disc of outtakes. The b-sides. The songs that were on Tracks. And another suite of video gems.
My official copy won't arrive until Friday, or maybe later. But the "new" audio contents are circulating now, and that basically means the 11 songs that make up the outtakes collection. As with "The Promise" outtakes collection, some of the recordings are completely new, and several others blend original recording elements with new vocals or other parts. It's tempting enough to investigate exactly what's old and what's new -- I did that exercise when writing about We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions for Backstreets magazine -- but ultimately more pleasing just to listen to this as a new, slightly disjointed album.

Unlike with The Promise, the outtakes disc here doesn't have any songs that became hits for other artists, nor any songs that were particularly well known at all. It doesn't really hold together all that well as a single album, starting with an obviously new recording of Meet Me In The City in which the singer "was busted for feeling no pain," and ending with a somewhat cleaned up version of the well-known acoustics outtake Mr. Outside with its embarrassing catch-line of "he's just looking out for number 1." But "Meet Me in the City" is fun, and the call and response "if you can holler than say all right" sounds like it could be heard during a concert opener soon. And this version of "Mr. Outside" is at least listenable to my ears, at least as compared to the outtake.

Other songs on the disc see Bruce exploring New Wave sounds, '60's styles, 12-string guitars, words spit out in rapid fire, and major quantities of organ and saxophone. What could be wrong with that? This isn't 1977, when Bruce was still a young man determined to prove himself with "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Bruce has explained that for "The River" he was consciously writing songs examining what it meant to him to be grown up and reckon with his fears. The outtakes disc has songs examining many of these themes, often including lyrics that ultimately found permanent homes elsewhere. Some of it works pretty well, too: Little White Lies uses lyrics that ultimately found their way to Loose End but are spit out more venomously here. The ones that don't work as well? They're still more than interesting enough, and songs like Chain Lightning rock well enough to be featured in concert in 2015.

"Ramrod," included in the box set

And this disc is basically the gravy, after the 41 previously released tracks (which includes, for us completist collectors, the studio version of Held Up Without a Gun finally being released digitally)... and that doesn't even include the video material. The video documentary, first aired on HBO last week, includes Bruce talking about his thoughts making the album, along with new acoustic renditions of several songs. Watching it, I was struck by the sense of the album's Old Soul, and how seamless it seemed to me to see Bruce, now past 65, examining the themes in present tense. The new version of "Wreck on the Highway," in which the singer imagines witnessing his own demise, is especially powerful.