Release Date: 11.10.98
Record label: sony
Big Boss Man
by: mark feldman
Box sets are generally a rip-off. If an artist has indeed recorded enough worthwhile material to fill four or more compact discs (and such artists make up a smaller and smaller percentage of box sets each year - yes, we all love Cheap Trick, but wouldn't one disc suffice?), his / her / their true fans generally have all their albums anyway. The one or two "rarities" included are often not even unheard songs, just early versions of greatest hits recorded on a 2-track in 1964 in the artist's bathroom, or what not. Digital remastering, meticulous liner notes and rare photos notwithstanding, the box is not worth the 50 plus dollars.
But with Tracks, Bruce Springsteen has thrown the whole box set industry for a loop. The four discs that make up this collection contain a grand total of TWO songs that appear on previously released Springsteen LP's; virtually unrecognizable early versions of "Born in the USA" and "it's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," both of which are fascinating to hear. The other 54 songs are either former B-sides ("Pink Cadillac" and "Janey Don't You Lose Your Heart" being the most well-known of the bunch) or songs that until now have only seen the light of day in live performances, if at all. Casual fans may want to shy away from this alternate career before hearing the well-known Springsteen classics first, but for anyone who already is familiar with the old stuff, Tracks is a must buy.
The vast majority of these songs measure up to almost anything the Boss has previously put out, and were only left off albums because they didn't fit the mood or because he had too many similar songs at the time to choose from. Beautiful, introspective statements like "Wages of Sin" and "Rockaway the Days" couldn't find a place on harder-rocking albums such as "The River" and "Born in the USA," while rave-ups like "Lion's Den" and "Leavin' Train" didn't fit the moods of "Nebraska" and "Tunnel of Love."
Surprisingly, the quality of material in consistent throughout all four discs. The innocence and desperation of Springsteen's early New Jersey period is brilliantly captured on disc one, through acoustic sessions from his first studio tryout, and ambitious story songs in the classic early Bruce mold such as "Bishop Danced," "Santa Ana" and "Zero and Blind Terry," all of which give "Rosalita" a run for its money as the true Springsteen epic. The late '70s and early '80s are documented on disc two, as an endless stream of simple-yet-addictive rockers such as "Dollhouse" and "Living On the Edge of the World" drifts by and makes one wonder how good an album between "Darkness On the Edge of Town" and "The River" could have been. Disc three mostly chronicles the "Born in the USA" period, mixing working class anthems like "Car Wash" and "TV Movie" with other lost gems, such as "Cynthia" and "Man at the Top," that apparently weren't fast paced enough for the album. And disc four contains a wide variety of material from the past decade - exactly why cries from the heart such as "Happy," "Seven Angels" and "Loose Change" were left off of the "Human Touch" album is anybody's guess, but here they finally are for us to enjoy.
What's really most amazing about this sprawling collection is that there really isn't a bad song on it - Bruce Springsteen's cut-outs and leftovers are better than most artists' released album tracks. The Boss should also be commended for a release that he will most likely lose money on but will please his true fans to no end. The inclusion of a few songs from movie soundtracks and benefit albums, such as "Trapped" from the USA for Africa project, would have been nice, but that is only a minor flaw. Most box sets are still rip-offs, but don't let this one pass you by.