CK Retro Review: Darkness On The Edge Of Town by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 10, 2014
The Born To Run afterglow wasn’t supposed to be like this. Instead of running victory laps after that unmitigated triumph, Bruce Springsteen had to fight for control of his career and even for the right to enter the studio to record his music. He used the three years it took to clear things up wisely, taking the time to write ten tough, unsparing songs that looked hard at what happens when youthful dreams are replaced with family pressures, dead-end jobs, and all the other stultifying trappings of reality. The resulting album, 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, as musically tough as it is thematically sound, proved there was an exciting path forward for Springsteen from the street sagas of the first three albums. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Something In The Night”- I definitely like the last verse, when things get quiet and Springsteen sings his lyrics with a little more clarity and purpose to Max Weinberg’s lonely but insistent drum beat. At times, his vocals here are a bit overdone (“think at all” comes out as “they-ahhhh,” for example) and the music meanders also. Still, there’s something interesting in the kind of unspecific enemy lurking throughout the song.
9. “Streets Of Fire”- This one is more an exercise in attitude than an attempt at profundity, which is fine every now and then. Born To Run’s lyrical acrobatics are nowhere in sight here, as the lyrics, while worded simply, wander all over the place, from paranoia to defiance and back again. That suits well the uneven emotional state of the narrator. Lyrics aside though, the catharsis of the band crashing in following the woozy opening is definitely the highlight.
8. “Candy’s Room”- Darkness may have been a departure away from Born To Run, but it wasn’t a 180-degree turn. One thing the two have in common is Springsteen’s fearlessness in trying different things, which displays itself in this song in the odd arrangement with its mumbled opening verses followed by the suddenly frenzied pace. Although this somewhat overwhelms any concerns about Candy, it makes for a great demonstration of the E Street Band’s ability to handle whatever Bruce throws at them.
7. “Adam Raised A Cain”- What do you do when you wake up one morning and realized you’ve slipped into a life that’s exactly the same as the one possessed by the guy down the hall who’s always on your case? You primal scream your way through this blistering track, that’s what. The first and perhaps the most searing example of Springsteen’s examination of the father/son dynamic, it features some Biblical by way of Steinbeck allusions and some of the E Street Band’s fiercest music, Springsteen’s guitar leading the attack. Future songs about the same subject matter from Bruce would leaven the approach a little, but the raw anger and hurt of this one can’t be denied.
6. “Factory”- No doubt, the life of gang-fighting and carousing ’till all hours of the night was a blast, but sooner or later Springsteen’s protagonists had to get a job. To reflect this sobering development, Bruce knew he needed a style of music more contemplative. So while it’s not exactly a Nashville Skyline transformation, there is more than a hint of country in the E Street Band’s delicate performance. Springsteen effortlessly describes not just the endless cycle of waking, suffering, and sleeping that exemplifies the working life of men like his father, but the collateral damage such a life does to the families of these men.
5. “The Promised Land”- While it is definitely not an upbeat album, Darkness does not trade much in despair either. The hero of this rousing, elegant rocker certainly feels life’s pressure, but he never relinquishes his hope in something better. He also memorably chastises anyone who would view this hope as naivete: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man.” Springsteen’s pop sense, in terms of keeping songs tight and at a radio-palatable length while maintaining their impact, started to show in songs like this and “Prove It All Night.” Even though they weren’t big hits, they were certainly progenitors of the hits to come.
4. “Prove It All Night”- A gleaming track that’s proved a worthy concert staple, it’s studio rendering is taut and potent, benefiting from expert ensemble work and wonderful solos from Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. Springsteen had entreated girls in the past with methods comical (“Rosalita”) and somber (“Thunder Road.”) On “Prove It All Night,” it’s a no-nonsense approach in keeping with the tone of the rest of the album. He doesn’t want to hear any belly-aching from this porch-hanging Mary and seems just as ready to drive away if she’s even the least bit reticent. Again, should have been a big hit, but it’s proven far more durable than some of the tripe that topped it on the charts in ’78.
3. “Racing In The Street”- What a difference a musical setting can make to a set of lyrics. If you just read the words to “Racing On The Street” and imagined them set to something like “I’m A Rocker”, you’d walk away exhilarated and believing that this anguished couple might indeed be able to wipe their slate clean. By setting it to Roy Bittan’s elegiac piano at a dirge-like pace, Springsteen exposes the deep futility of their lives. Any highs of races won are quickly doused by a home life filled with denial and depression. The lovely coda by Bittan on piano and Danny Federici on organ sounds like the dream ride into the sunset that these two aren’t destined to take.
2. “Badlands”- It’s crucial that Springsteen’s protagonist is obsessed with the facts, because the album jump-started by this rousing opener spells out those facts with ruthless efficiency and maximum impact. Yet “Badlands” is another track here that fights valiantly to come to some sort of terms with those facts, first by facing up to them, then by rising above them. Having music as pulse-pounding as this certainly helps, with Max Weinberg in full wallop mode and Springsteen and Clemons once again trading off with abandon. The last verse quiets things down only to rise back into the defiance of “I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands,” one of the first examples of a tactic Springsteen has come to perfect. It pulls people involuntarily out of their seats to confront their own existences and demand they make them worth something.
1. “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”- The miracle of this song is how it walks a fine line between uplift and delusion. One way to look at the protagonist is to say that he found a venue where he can again taste life’s marrow after his previous state of numbness. Another way is to say that he has lost the best things he had in favor of foolish self-destruction. What Springsteen suggests is that we all tread that line, and choices are never easy when you start to wobble. In the refrains, the band crashing down all around him, he sings with a mixture of anger, lust, and bravado, so that it’s impossible to tell if he’s reached the top of the mountain or if he’s tumbling over the cliff. Maybe his most pyschologically profound song to that point in his career, and, come to think of it, it still might hold that title.
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