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Springsteen Sundays: A playlist project - Making "Dollhouse," a 'new' album culled from outtakes
In case you missed the last few columns, here’s the short explanation of my new Sunday feature: readers really liked my Wrecking Ball coverage (and drove site traffic through the roof), I’m a Bruce Springsteen maniac, and I’ve therefore created a new weekly column wherein I explore whatever Boss-related thoughts are on my mind. It’s called Springsteen Sundays.
This week, I’m sharing the first of hopefully many “playlist projects,” wherein I look at Bruce’s large body of outtakes and see if sets of songs can be molded into ‘albums’ of their own. My first result? An imaginary LP called Dollhouse.
Read all about it after the jump…
Tracks kicks ass. I don’t think there’s any debating that fact. It is an awesome box set, filled to burst with absolutely incredible songs that, while left off their respective albums for logical reasons, stand among the best of Bruce’s extensive catalogue. But whenever I listen to it, I inevitably wind up wondering what other contexts these songs may have taken on had they been previously compiled into actual albums, or integrated with the records they were originally recorded for. As I started considering these “What-If?” scenarios, I took a step further, and started making imaginary ‘albums’ out of outtakes.
The process is surprisingly fun and engaging, and gives one great insight into Bruce’s own creative process; one immediately starts to realize why it is Bruce has pages and pages of notes on alternate track-listings for Darkness, or why he went back to work on The River after being dissatisfied with the original single LP. When you’re making an album, you have to find an emotional or thematic through-thread to connect all the songs, those songs have to maintain a strong flow and pacing, and the music itself must be compelling and differentiated. It’s a ridiculously difficult balance to strike, and only once you attempt to pull it off do you realize how maddening it can be.
This has become one of my favorite musical hobbies as of late, especially after The Promise album came out, giving me an additional 21 songs to work with. The process always begins with identifying parameters, the first of which is invariably the era of the songs. It would be unwise to patch together outtakes from Born in the USA and Darkness, for instance, due to musical and thematic disparities. But Darkness and The River were recorded close enough together, with identical E-Street line-ups and similar sounds, that I feel comfortable combining outtakes from the two. The imaginary album I’ve compiled from those outtakes is the one I’ll be sharing with you today, a project I call Dollhouse.
Once I identify the era, the next step is examining what you have to work with. For Darkness and The River, that’s the last six tracks of Tracks Disc One, almost all of Disc Two, and the entirety of The Promise: roughly 40 songs in total. Next, I get to know the songs, and try to get a feel for what Bruce was writing about and why; only then can I start to see thematic connections, and maybe find songs that fit together. For instance, “Where the Bands Are” is one of my favorites, but would it fit on an album featuring dark love songs like “Dollhouse” and “Loose Ends?” My goal is to narrow down those 40 songs into one set that is thematically unified, and from there, to arrange it all into something that would sound good as an LP.
Narrowing it all down actually isn’t the hard part. You start to see connections fairly quickly; there are a lot of songs about romantic desperation from that period – I like to say that The Promise is mostly a set of contenders for the “Candy’s Room” spot on Darkness – mixed with pieces about personal struggles. Darkness is primarily about those personal issues, and The River is more broadly focused on individuals in relation to their respective communities, so the material left off actually coalesces into clear thematic arcs rather neatly.
Examining the music, I finally settled on a set of songs that focused primarily on love (as most of the outtakes do), both as a force of good and a source of grief or desperation. From there, it all came down to arranging the tracks and cutting extraneous songs, and that’s where I started to discover the arc of this (fake) record. I decided using a basic 2-side LP template would give me a good structure to work with: six songs apiece (which would put this album’s length equivalent to Born in the USA and Magic), with a strong intro and finale for each side. That’s where I started sequencing, because once you have each of the record’s four corners mapped out, you have a pretty clear outline to work with, and just fill in the blanks from there.
The ‘corners’ were easy; some songs simply sound like intros, and others sound like conclusions. I immediately knew the album would begin with “I Wanna Be With You,” which is as clear an album-opener as Bruce has ever recorded, and nicely introduces the themes of love and longing I wanted the rest of the album to play with. The closers would be “Be True” for side one and “Loose Ends” for side two, which was an automatic choice as they were originally designed as the final tracks for The Ties That Bind, the cancelled album that was expanded to become The River. Both are phenomenal closing tracks, and represent clear stages in an emotional journey. I had a few ideas for the Side Two opener, but ultimately settled on “Dollhouse,” a song about how people construct false realities about perfect romances. Based on the other songs I was considering to fill the gaps, this theme seemed salient to the other tracks, and served as an effective turning point for the album’s arc (and from a sequencing standpoint, “Dollhouse” is a song clearly designed as a kick-off, making it a very exciting side starter).
From there, I had a solid vision about how the album had to go. We start with an unqualified declaration of love, arrive at an affirmation of that love, revisit the romance at a point where it’s all on the verge of collapsing, and end with the singer reflecting on a romance gone down in flames. Now I just had to fill in the journey from point-A to point-B, and after weeks of tinkering, listening, and contemplating, this is what I came up with (including a cheekily threatening title):
1. I Wanna Be With You
3. Ain’t Good Enough for You
4. Someday (We’ll Be Together)
5. Take ‘em As They Come
6. Be True
2. Give the Girl a Kiss
3. Don’t Look Back
4. Candy’s Boy
5. Stolen Car
6. Loose Ends
Even though characters shift from song to song, I’ve always found that in the best Bruce albums, you can find one story told across all the tracks. The final sequencing of my imaginary album represents this kind of arcing. The first side is the tumultuous period between a declaration of love (“I Wanna Be With You”) and the actual consummation (“Be True”). In the middle, we get four songs that clearly exist in that interim, and start laying the groundwork for the themes of doubt, desperation, and longing that will define side two. “Rendezvous” speaks for itself, and keeps the energy flowing after the opening track; “Ain’t Good Enough” isn’t a 100% perfect thematic fit here, but I can reason it out by assuming the song’s subject isn’t the same woman of the surrounding tracks. More importantly, it’s one of my favorite Springsteen songs, and sounds really good accompanied by other high-energy love songs. “Someday” is also a pretty obvious choice, and most crucially, moves the album into ‘epic’ territory with its sweeping imagery and soundscape. The epic feeling continues with “Take ‘em As They Come,” easily one of my ten favorite Bruce songs; here we’re introduced to the darker side of the road these characters walk, and the singer’s belief that they will only be able to traverse it together. And in “Be True,” they finally make the decision to do so, and promise to be faithful to one another.
That seems like a good place to pause the narrative, and the beauty of pretending to have an LP’s side break is that the resulting gap allows us to imagine or infer development of the arc without actually needing to illustrate it. So we return with “Dollhouse,” and see that at least one member of this relationship is pretending life has become perfect despite evidence to the controversy. It will have all fallen apart irreparably by the time we reach “Loose Ends.” In between, things obviously have to get heavy, and this seems like the appropriate time to start playing with structure, as Bruce likes to do. So “Give the Girl a Kiss” comes in to zig when we expect it to zag; for one, it’s a good pacing choice, but thematically, I think you can read it as either a last-ditch effort to patch up a relationship with sex, or as a flashback to happier times.
“Don’t Look Back,” one of the most legendary Darkness outtakes, is all about two people relying on each other to blow off the shackles of a disappointing existence; I think that theme lies at the heart of what these songs are about, and this seems like as natural a place as any to place it (the song’s abrupt start and finish makes it very tough to sequence). “Candy’s Boy” is undoubtedly a flashback to happier, simpler times, one of Bruce’s most common rhetorical devices; the devastation of the conclusion simply hits harder if you have an immediate, joyous point of reference. “Stolen Car” – and I should note this is the full-band, extended version from Tracks, which is very different from the stark recording on The River – firmly returns us to the present, and describes, with truly heart-wrenching imagery, the effects of love’s decay. This sets us up perfectly for “Loose Ends,” set further in the future where the singer has hindsight to assist his reflection, and possibly provide redemption for the broken romance.
All in all, I think this track listing makes for a pretty compelling stand-alone album, one that collects and attempts to hone in on a lot of what was floating around Bruce’s mind at the time. It’s definitely a “love” album, but in a uniquely Springsteen way, where love isn’t a magical healing solvent, but a constant source of tension and trouble. Having listened to this fake album many times, I can at least say it flows really well; to my ears, it could pass for a legitimate release, which is what I was aiming for.
It’s all just a silly hobby, of course, but a fun and intellectually stimulating one that helps me study how the real albums are constructed. I’ve got some other playlist projects I’m working on that I’ll hopefully share in the future; Dollhouse was a relatively easy one thanks to the wealth of material, but making a new album out of Born in the USA outtakes, for instance, requires greater compromise due to a lack of connective tissue. Anyway, if you have Tracks and The Promise in your iTunes library, I’d recommend assembling the Dollhouse playlist and giving it a listen; I’d love to hear other fans’ thoughts on this, including whatever changes you might make. The arcing of this track list satisfies me, but your interests and ideas may be quite different, so please, sound off in the comments, and I’ll see you here next week!