Darkness On The Edge Of Town

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1978


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


I wasn't sure I was going to write a review of Darkness On The Edge Of Town for this month's big retrospective since my compadre Christopher Thelen had already covered the album back in 1997. Then I read his review. "Prove It All Night " -- one of the most beloved numbers in Springsteen's entire catalogue -- "disappoints"? "Candy's Room" -- a personal favorite -- doesn't "have the same effect" as other story-songs on the album? The album with arguably Springsteen's best slow song -- "Racing In The Streets" -- has too many soft/quiet tracks? Dude -- whatchu been smokin'?

Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the album on which Bruce Springsteen decided, now that he had a career in rock and roll, what he wanted to do with it. He had been through legal hell over the previous three years getting out from under the onerous management contract he had been convinced to sign as a naïve young artist. In the meantime, the musical world had changed, with the rise of punk and disco leaving rock and roll fighting for its life.

The question hanging in the air was, did rock have anything left to say? The answer was Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the album where Bruce Springsteen grew up, where he went from an artist of prodigious talent and limited discipline to one who channeled and focused his musical vision to laser-like intensity.

The focus he chose was born out of the continuing evolution of his perspective. On his first three albums he had chronicled the hazy, crazy, often carefree but ultimately unfulfilling street life of his late teens/early 20s peers in New Jersey. By 1978, he was 27 years old. His friends from the old days had grown up, taken jobs, gotten married, and were engaged in a different kind of struggle -- to carve out a living, to maintain hope, to somehow hang on to some meaningful part of the fading dreams of their youth.

The album-opener "Badlands," in addition to being one of the hardest-rocking songs the man has ever recorded, served as the socio-political/musical manifesto that would crystallize the themes Springsteen has been exploring more or less ever since. There are almost too many lines to quote, but here are a few key ones. On class divisions -- "Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain't satisfied until he rules everything." On perseverance: "I believe in the love that you gave me / I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe in the faith / And I pray that someday it may raise me / Above these badlands." On hope: "For the ones who had a notion / A notion deep inside / That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A quarter-century later, "Badlands" remains a consistent highlight of Springsteen's live shows with the E Street Band, a pounding, breakneck, all-out explosion of rock and roll fervor aimed at inspiring those who might feel beyond inspiration, lifting them up on the shoulders of the music and carrying them to a better place. The crescendos and breakdowns give every member of the band -- including old friend and newest member Steve Van Zandt -- a moment to shine on this one, and they all come through.

It would be hard for any artist and any album to maintain the standard of intensity set by "Badlands." Knowing he can't go back now, though, Springsteen wisely follows with "Adam Raised A Cain," a seething, lurching blast of unleashed frustration that seems in some places to be about his tumultuous relationship with his father, and in others to be about his long struggle to free himself from the clutches of former manager Mike Appel.

Through the rest of the album, Springsteen intersperses quiet moments with heavier ones, building and falling back, building and falling back. "Something In The Night" and "Streets Of Fire" are both great examples of this careful pacing, songs featuring a coiled intensity that advances and recedes and advances again until it seems like it's going to burst at any moment… and then does. "Candy's Room" has much the same feel, in addition to absolutely nailing the over-the-top urgency of adolescent passion. ("We go driving, driving deep into the night / I go driving deep into the light, in Candy's eyes.")

The softest track on the album is one of its most spectacular moments, as "Racing In The Streets" finds Springsteen, over Roy Bittan's melancholy solo piano, telling a beautifully-rendered story of desperate working men seeking some kind of primitive release.

The cornerstones of the album, though, are four tracks that have forever after loomed large in Springsteen's live shows -- the aforementioned "Badlands," "The Promised Land," "Prove It All Night" and the title track. All reflect different aspects of the working class's struggle to build some kind of worthwhile life. "The Promised Land" acts as a beacon of hope, but the choruses only shine as bright as they do because of the darkness of verses like this one: "I've done my best to live the right way / I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode."

The album closes out with the one-two punch of "Prove It All Night" and the title track. Like "Promised Land," "Prove It" features Springsteen and guitarist/harmony vocalist Van Zandt egging one another on as Bruce lays out a rough-edged scenario of a man trying to prove himself worthy -- of love, respect, self-confidence, a future, everything. And "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" is simply one of the man's best, a song about facing down your personal demons whose stately pace at the opening builds to an almost frightening intensity by the close, then falls back and leaves its haunting melody echoing in your head.

Only the flat production on this album -- especially on, of all things, the drums and guitars -- stands between it and musical perfection. Of all Springsteen's albums, including his debut, this is the one that has always sounded like it could benefit the most from a remix (sharper highs, fuller lows, more space). Regardless, it remains one of the most important albums in Springsteen's career, and as a showcase for his songwriting, it's nothing less than a masterpiece.

Rating: A

User Rating: B+


© 2005 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.