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Bruce Springsteen: The Promise — The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story CD and Blu-ray Set Review

  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1; 1.78:1
  • Video Codec: AVC/MPEG-4
  • Resolution: 1080i/60; 1080p/24
  • Audio Codec: LPCM 5.1, LPCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Subtitles: N/A
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Region: ABC (Region-Free)
  • Discs: 6 (3 x Blu-ray + 3 x CD)
  • Studio: Columbia Records
  • Blu-ray Release Date: November 16, 2010
  • List Price: $139.98

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Overall
[Rating:4/5]
The Collection
[Rating:5/5]

Video Quality
[Rating:3.5/5]

Audio Quality
[Rating:4.5/5]

Supplemental Materials
[Rating:0/5]

Click thumbnails for high-resolution 1920X1080p screen captures

(Screen captures are lightly compressed with lossy JPEG  thus are meant as a general representation of the content and do not fully reveal the capabilities of the Blu-ray format)

The Collection

[Rating:5/5]

In the interests of full disclosure I must say up front that I am a rabid Bruce Springsteen fan and have been since I was 12-years-old. That’s when Born in the USA came out and I first discovered “The Boss.” Of course, always also being a rabid consumer of all things music, even at that age, I was not content to know of Bruce only through that album, so I quickly had to hit my favorite local record stores (remember those?) and work my way through his back catalogue.

I remember the first three “old” Bruce albums I picked up were Born to Run (1975), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) and Nebraska (1982). There couldn’t have been three more different albums, from each other and from Born in the USA. Admittedly, I at first didn’t know what to make of Nebraska — what was this poorly recorded country-sounding stuff? — and Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town were such polar opposites they threw me for a loop.

Eventually, in my youthful exuberance, Born to Run would win the day with its wide-eyed optimism, visions of busting out, getting the girl, and tearing down the road. In time, however, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, and the rest of the Springsteen catalogue would work their way up the ladder on my favorites list of Springsteen albums, until, one day, Darkness and Nebraska would alternately reign, sometimes being temporarily dethroned by The River (1980).

Darkness on the Edge of Town, I would come to realize, is an album that one needs a bit more maturity to fully grasp — and also a little back-story. After the huge breakthrough success that was Born to Run in 1975, Springsteen ended up in a prolonged legal battle with his manager over the rights to his catalogue. The result was that for three years he could not and would not release a thing. By today’s standards, that seems like the blink of an eye, but in the mid-70’s, three years in the music business with no output was like a lifetime. Springsteen was being questioned as a flash in the pan, a one hit wonder; being called a has been — this after having already released three albums.

In the intervening years between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen hardly remained idle. He was a virtual wellspring of musical ideas, recording song upon song, rearranging ideas and lyrics over and over with his band. When the time finally came to head back into the studio to put out an album, he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do and a mountain of material to choose from, but he was in a wholly different place from the Born to Run period.

Whether it was the experience of going through a lawsuit with someone who was considered a friend, a general feeling of “70’s malaise,” a bit of influence from the new crop of punk rockers that had hit upon the scene, or some combination of all the above, Darkness was to be bleaker, edgier, and starker than anything Springsteen had done up to that point.

Gone was the sense of being able to “get out” and being “born to run.” In were stripped down arrangements of songs that told of being trapped in small towns, stuck in hardworking lives, relationships that don’t turn out like you dreamed they would, and racing in the streets of your same old home town just to blow off the steam. Bruce Springsteen the heartland rocker was finally born.

The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story is the collection that finally brings together for fans of Bruce and this pivotal album the whole story and the missing links, including a brilliant documentary on the making of the album and the period surrounding it, plus fans are finally treated to 2-CDs filled with all of those wonderful tracks from the period that were left behind to ensure that Darkness maintained the sound that Bruce heard in his head. There are also, on Blu-ray, concert performances from the era that include live versions of songs that would eventually turn up on The River and an all-new 2009 live performance of Darkness on the Edge of Town at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ that brings together the full E. Street Band as they were configured during the Darkness sessions. Additionally there’s a bootleg show from Houston, TX, 1978 that may not look great on Blu-ray, but is worth it for the music alone.

What one notices most in the 2009 live recording, done in an empty theatre so there’s no audience to distract, is that Darkness always wanted to be a more mature album. Now, all these years later, the songs take on less an angry young man discovering that the world will let you down sort of tone, and more of the world weariness that was always an undercurrent in its lyrics. The arrangements stay true to the album or the classic live performances of the songs, other than “Factory,” a song Springsteen has said was inspired by his father. It now takes on a gentle, countrified lilt, rather than the straightforward thud of its album version, and with Springteen’s acquired twang in his matured vocals, there’s a sadness in them there words. “Streets of Fire,” always much more rollicking live than on record, absolutely screams here, sounding more like Neil Young and Crazy Horse than The E. Street Band, making one wonder why The Boss never pursued that avenue of music making further.

The 2-CD set, The Promise, shines a light on Springteen’s thought process during the era. As bleak and straightforward an album Darkness is, Springsteen never stopped composing his more r&b/doo-wop inspired material and The Promise is filled with it. There’s no wonder that The River had to be a double album given the amount of material Springsteen was withholding.

The entire set is packaged in a deluxe box that encases a replica of Springteen’s Darkness era folder-notebook with facsimiles of actual handwritten notebook pages with lyrics, song arrangements and more. This makes a perfect gift for any Springsteen fan.

Video Quality

[Rating:3.5/5]

Video quality is necessarily a mixed bag in this set, with the three Blu-rays being comprised of such widely varying source material. The Thrill Hill Vault materials on discs 2 & 3, in particular, do not look spectacular, especially not the Houston ’78 bootleg, which is sourced from video and up-scaled to 1080i/60. Some of the other archival material is film sourced, but shows a lot of damage still that hasn’t been cleaned up and is also encoded at 1080i.

Disc 2’s Darkness on the Edge of Town 2009 performance at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ was captured in HD and is encoded at 1080p/24. It shows sharp detail, but is purposely gritty. The Promise documentary has some of the cleanest HD detail in its interview segments, but is also made up of a lot of the archival footage that appears on the Thrill Hill Vault discs.

In all, however, the video quality is quite solid given the above issues, and given that this set is more about the music than it is about the absolute best in picture quality, I do not believe too many people will be disappointed.

Audio Quality

[Rating:4.5/5]

Anchoring this collection are the remastered CD of Darkness on the Edge of Town, a 2009 performance on Blu-ray by Bruce & The E. Street Band at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ, and the new 2-CD collection, The Promise, comprising previously unreleased recordings from the Darkness period.  There are of course other concert and archival performances included on two Blu-ray discs from the so-called “Thrill Hill Vault.” and The Promise documentary.

The new 2009 live performance by The Boss and the E. Street Band (Blu-ray 2) offers up the best sound of the live performances, with a stunning PCM 5.1 option, that gets you right there in the performance space with the band. The PCM stereo mix also works well, with spacious panning and good dynamics.

On the Thrill Hill Vault ’76  — ’78 (Blu-ray 2) performances, PCM 5.1 and PCM 2.0 options are offered. Sound quality varies, given the variance in sources from demos to small performance venues, etc. With that being said, the sound is still warm, dynamic, and offers listenable high frequencies with good bass response. By the time it gets to the classic Phoenix ’78 performances of “Born to Run” and “Rosalita,” there’s no mistaking that the engineers have done a superb job bringing the 5.1 mixes to life.

Blu-ray 3’s Thrill Hill Vault Houston Bootleg House Cut offers a simple PCM 2.0 mix that sounds quite dull in comparison to the rest of the material with little in the way of stereo imaging, but it is the nature of the source material rather than the mastering, and it is not over compressed or tweaked in its high frequencies — it’s allowed to breathe, making this classic Bruce performance easy to take in.

The Promise documentary (Blu-ray 1) offers up fine enough dialogue and spacious sound when the audio kicks in, but it is a typical documentary mix in that the focus is not necessarily on the music, but on the dialogue and narration.

A brief note on the CDs:

This is not an audio site, per se, but a big part of this set are the CDs, and Darkness on the Edge of Town has been beefed up on CD. After having been available in a rather weak sounding CD release for years, it finally has some bottom to it, with warmer, more upfront sounding guitars and, thankfully, tape hiss is still audible, probably more so than on the original CD.

The Promise 2-CD set follows the same line as far as mastering goes, with standouts for sound quality on the set being the warm and punchy sounding “Fire,” and the title track.

Supplemental Materials

[Rating:0/5]

There are no true supplements, per se, but the box set includes:

  • Darkness on the Edge of Town [Remastered CD]
  • The Promise [2-CD Set]
  • The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town [Blu-ray 1]
  • Blu-ray 2:
    • Bruce Springsteen & The E. Street Band: Darkness on the Edge of Town, Paramount Theatre, Asbury Park, NJ 2009
    • Bruce Springsteen & The E. Street Band: Thrill Hill Vault 1976 — 1978
  • Blu-ray 3:
    • Bruce Springsteen & The E. Street Band: Thrill Hill Vault Houston ’78 Bootleg House Cut
  • Deluxe Slipcase cover with replica folder notebook.

The Definitive Word

Overall:

[Rating:4/5]

This is the definitive Darkness on the Edge of Town collection, with superb sound, classic live performances, an abundance of previously unreleased tacks of the highest quality and deluxe packaging. If you’re a Springsteen fan, you won’t want to pass this up. Here’s hoping we get more sets like this from “The Boss” chronicling some of his other classic albums.

Additional Screen Captures:

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