January 1999

Bruce Springsteen - Tracks
Columbia CXK 69475
Released: 1998
HDCD Encoded

by Todd Warnke

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]Unissued songs, like sleeping dogs, are usually better left alone, and for that reason I avoid studio bootlegs. Hey, if the artist lacked confidence in the tune, why should I pay two or three times the standard cost of a CD for a CD-R that has all the fidelity of a 25-year-old 8-track, lasts about 30 minutes and is mostly a collection of false starts? So then, Tracks, the four-CD, 66-song collection of mostly unissued material is nothing more than the Springsteen Estate cashing in before Bruce kicks off, right? Wrong. When making an album, Springsteen is famous for recording scores of great songs and then culling not on qualitative grounds, but on thematic ones. The end result is that Tracks opens the proverbial vaults and invites you and me to judge the artist’s choices. And in many ways the verdict is bad, not for the songs -- oh no -- but for Bruce.

At least 20 of the tunes in this boxed set are A-list songs that should have been released before now. Those hardcore fans who were willing to forego the legal and monetary ramifications of the bootleg have long known classic, unreleased songs such as "Zero And Blind Terry," "Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own," "Cynthia," "Frankie," "Thundercrack" and "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Now we all get to hear them. But legal access to these songs is only the first reason to be grateful for Tracks.

Having heard several of these songs on various Brucelegs, I can say that the sound quality is a good part of the story here. The HDCD mastering gives the more recent songs slightly better-than-average Columbia sound, while making all but the oldest tracks quite listenable. The overdubbing, mostly on the more recent tracks, is well done and for the most part noticeable only when compared to bootlegged versions. And while there is no reference-quality sound here, there is a lot of raw, good-sounding rock.

A third reason to listen to Tracks is the revisionist history it opens up. "Roulette" would have fit perfectly on the second side of the second LP of The River thematically and added a bit of muscle as well. The acoustic "Born in the U.S.A." was written for that year’s album, Nebraska, and while certainly not the hit it was two years later, in this form it is devastating. "Wages of Sin" belongs on Tunnel of Love as a second-side counterpart to "Spare Parts." "Ricky Wants A Man Of Her Own" needed to be on Darkness On The Edge Of Town, just as "Brothers Under The Bridges (’83)" should have been on Born In The U.S.A. If "TV Movie" had been released in 1984, would Springsteen have complained about "57 Channels (and Nothing on)" in 1990? And for those of you think of the Boss as a solitary figure, Tracks reminds us how great a band the E Streeters were. From 1975 through 1987 they were the tightest group in the game, and these cuts are the proof.

But, as it should be, the real reason to get Tracks is for the songs. From the first four tracks, the original demos for legendary talent scout John Hammond, through 1998’s "Gave It A Name " (a rough cut that I’m betting we see reworked and on an album soon), this is, in Bruce’s words, an "alternate route" through the themes that have dominated his work. "Zero and Blind Terry" is a counterpart to "Jungleland," while the female protagonist in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" speaks of the same "meanness in this world" as in the title track from Nebraska (and the Flannery O’Connor short story of the same name, of course). "Lion’s Den" puts a biblical twist on the bravado of "I’m A Rocker," while "Goin’ Cali" is the happy flip side to the story started by about five of the songs off The River. As for alternate versions, the aforementioned "Born In The U.S.A." amplifies the meaning of the official release, and the version of "Stolen Car" adds verses that expand that story.

And there’s more. "Frankie," "Cynthia," "I Wanna Be With You," "Happy" and "Back In Your Arms" rank among the best of Bruce’s love songs, while "Dollhouse" looks at immature love and "Trouble In Paradise" at the last days of a marriage. "Seven Angels" is proof that the ’90s’ Bruce can still rock, while disc three shows how effortlessly the Boss did rock. And special mention has to go perhaps the most unusual tune in all of Springsteen’s oeuvre, "The Wish," which is the only song where he directly addresses his mother.

There are so many great songs here that anything short of a full track listing will leave a deserving song out. Springsteen calls Tracks an alternate route; I see it as an alternate Best Of. Sure, none of the songs here were ever released, but that’s not their fault. However, if you care about rock and don’t check out Tracks, that’s your fault. It’s perhaps the last essential collection of the ‘90s.