Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge Of Town

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)


1. Badlands 2. Adam Raised A Cain 3. Something In The Night 4. Candy’s Room 5. Racing In The Street 6. The Promised Land 7. Factory 8. Streets Of Fire 9. Prove It All Night 10. Darkness On The Edge Of Town


This is the absolute perfect follow-up to Born To Run in virtually every sense. Well, except for the fact that it didn’t sell as much, I guess, but that almost seemed to be by design. Or at least inevitable, intentional or not, considering the state of mind and business situation Bruce found himself in while making it. See, after Born To Run made him a household name by birthing several of the most FM airwave-clogging hits of all time, Bruce entered into an ugly, drawn out legal battle with his former manager, Mike Appel, that ultimately resulted in the installation of the world’s number one Springsteen acolyte, Jon Landau (the “I have seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen” guy… geez, what a kiss ass), in Appel’s place, but also kept the E Street Band out of the studio for an extended period and apparently put a dent in the exuberant, romantic optimism that Bruce drew on to such acclaimed effect on Born To Run.

Because Darkness On The Edge Of Town is by no stretch of the imagination the big, shiny celebration of youth and freedom that its predecessor was. Rather, it’s the cold, hard, inevitable endgame of that ethos – eventually—at least among the undereducated average schlubs Bruce usually sings about—youthful idealism always cedes to old age, depressing routine, and unrealized promise. Rather than epic street dramas, highway fantasies, and nights filled with debauchery and finding true love, the songs on Darkness concern themselves with broken dreams, economic hardship, and emotional desperation. The tired, bitter couple in “Racing In The Street” could easily be the same one from “Thunder Road,” 30 years on, as he sneaks out at night to try to vainly recapture that sense of danger and possibilities he felt back when he traded wings for wheels. But then he has to go back home to his depressed wife and proceed with “Dying little by little, piece by piece.” You know, real stuff that real people go through every day. Not escapist Andrew Lloyd Webber horseshit.

That’s the genius of Darkness. Bruce was obviously feeling disillusioned when he made it, and he could have easily drawn on that to make something reactionary in response to his newfound success. He could have, I dunno, started playing “Kitty’s Back” style free-form jazz full time, or doing shitty Dylan impressions again. But, as tonally and musically different as the two record are, Darkness isn’t a repudiation of Born To Run – it’s the logical thematic conclusion. All the artifice is stripped away, and what’s left is sometimes ugly and uncomfortable. This process of cutting right to the painful reality of his characters’ lives connects Bruce to the folk tradition’s lineage that he so desperately wants to be a part of a million times more powerfully and directly than any morose “Mary Queen of Arkansas”-style acoustic dick-twiddler ever could.

Ingeniously, Bruce doesn’t just cut out the fat lyrically on Darkness – he does it musically too. Yes, the album is still plenty bombastic. For instance, “Badlands” remains one of the E Street Band’s most obvious, and best, crowd-pleasing live anthems. But that quiet meditative moment of piano and wordless chanting grounds it and adds an emotionally evocative element missing from Born To Run’s full bore operatic rock. Indeed, the excess and melodrama of songs like “Jungleland” is long gone. Instead, the arrangements on Darkness are lean, mean, and best of all, guitar-based (!!!). Little Stevie plays some absolutely bone-crunching rhythm guitar on this record, and Bruce freaking shreds in places, most notably his frenzied shrieks on “Adam Raised A Cain,” by far the most savage guitar rocker in his catalog, and his searing solo on “Prove It All Night,” which is so hot it sounds like it’s melting the wax upon which it was pressed. But it’s not just the guitars. The piano sound is harsher, and the piano lines themselves less roaming and pleasingly tighter. Bruce’s vocals are throatier, earthier, and more soulful. Even Clarence’s sax solos seem grittier. Basically, Darkness is like the anti-superhero movie sequel. Rather than try to outdo the previous spectacle by making everything bigger and louder like some hack Hollywood studio, Bruce scaled everything back, in the process proving he is too smart to fall into such a common and obvious trap.

But the main reason Darkness is such a good follow-up to Born To Run is that it’s way fucking better! I mean, what better way to follow up your breakthrough album than with an album that is qualitatively superior in almost every respect? I mean, I completely understand why Born To Run is more popular, considering Darkness’s comparatively somber tone and unadorned arrangements (well, by E Street Band standards anyway. Don’t worry, the album still sounds like it was made by a traveling carnival band. Just one whose members are in a state of deep consternation over their circus elephant’s recent cancer diagnosis). But to me, it’s just not even close. Nowhere on Born To Run do you find savagely pumping rock like “Candy’s Room,” which in terms of tempo and dark edge, is as close as Bruce ever got to playing punk (which is to say, not very close, but I’ll take it). Or anything as wailingly soulful as “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.” There’s certainly nothing like “Racing In The Street,” which is one of the E Street Band’s quietest, starkest efforts, but undoubtedly one of its most unassailably brilliant and evocative. And that’s without any three-minute sax solos or Bruce screaming at the top of his lungs about people with dumb nicknames. How about that?

Darkness is nearly perfect as a complete 43-minute musical and thematic statement, even if a couple of its individual songs—namely the short singalong “Factory” and the overblown “Streets of Fire,” which conveniently appear back to back in the middle of side 2—don’t quite measure up to the standard set on the rest of the album. But both those songs kick the absolute shit out of the weaker half of Born To Run. Ultimately, Born To Run may have put Bruce on the map, but Darkness ensured he would stay there for a long, long time.

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