‘Chapter and Verse’ is intended as a companion piece to Bruce Springsteen’s critically lauded memoir Born to Run, with each track hand-picked by the man himself to represent a stage in his development as a songwriter (and, more generally, as a human being). Resisting the urge to simply repackage his Best Of collections, the compilation delves deep into his long and winding catalogue, containing a mix of hits, album tracks and unreleased rarities, ranging chronologically from some of the earliest demo recordings by his formative bands, all the way to 2012’s return-to-form effort ‘Wrecking Ball’.
The whole ‘soundtrack playlist to the autobiography’ shtick is a risky one, with a huge margin for error; in anyone else’s hands, it could have come off as being both self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing: lest we forget a running gag in the Alan Partridge autobiography I, Partridge is his wince-inducing attempt to do the same, albeit without the funds to afford the lofty licensing costs. This is Bruce we’re talking about, however, and the amount of thought that has gone into its assembly, as well as the quality of its contents, makes this companion piece almost impossible to ignore for those wanting to get the most out of the book.
For the diehards, the big draw here is the clearly first five tracks, which are previously unreleased looks at The Boss in embryonic form. ‘Baby, I’ and ‘You Can’t Judge a Book By its Cover’ are two tracks Bruce recorded at the tender age of 16 with his first band The Castiles; the former is a Beatlesy, British Invasion-influenced track, whilst the latter is a much rowdier, almost proto-punk cut – both fascinating peeks behind the curtain no doubt, but more interesting as artefacts in Boss lore than pieces of music in their own right.
‘He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)’, though – recorded by his next pre-E Street act Steel Mill a blues-rock outfit in the vein of early Aerosmith or Free – is the clear surprise highlight of this set. With explosive blues riffs and swirling organ lines, and young Springsteen adopting a bluesy, almost southern drawl, it makes you wonder what his career would have been like if he’d have stayed on this Zeppelin-esque, riff rocker course. ‘Ballad of Jesse James’, a piano-led piece, follows; telling the tale of the titular outlaw, it’s the first unearthed track to begin showing hallmarks of the Bruce we know and love – and by the time we get to ‘Henry Boy’, a stark, acoustic outtake from his debut ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’, we’re brought neatly up to the beginning of the familiar Springsteen story.
Most of the established tracks on ‘Chapter and Verse’ need no introduction: the defiant ‘Badlands’, the tragically haunting ‘The River’, the high water mark of heartland rock that is ‘Born To Run’, to name a few. It’s the not quite so obvious additions – lesser known offerings like the jubilant folk rocker ‘Long Time Comin’’ (one of the few upbeat tracks on the sombre ‘Devils and Dust’) and the earnest, anthemic ‘Living Proof’ from his 90s wilderness years – though, that ensure that the album shows as many sides to his musical persona as possible, and prove he’s been one of the most consistently brilliant artists of the past five decades.
For the uninitiated, ‘Chapter and Verse’ is an indispensable way to dip your toe in the Springsteen canon. For those already converted, it’s simply a mixtape – but a great one, at that.