Classic Americana Albums: Bruce Springsteen “Darkness on the Edge of Town”

Columbia, 1978

Much, to say the least has been written about Bruce Springsteen. His astonishing catalogue of perceptive songs, classic albums and epic shows. However, his songwriting’s influence on those captured by his utter brilliance reaches deep into the soul and will always be a thrilling source of fascination.

Released in 1978 when he was in his late twenties, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town‘ is Springsteen’s fourth studio album and came after a long and difficult battle with his former producer and manager, which had effectively prevented him from recording throughout that period. Not one to waste time, Springsteen had spent the year-long recording hiatus writing, and rehearsing in his house along with the E Street Band, so as soon as the lawsuit was settled, they were straight out of the blocks. The album would then take another year to come together with several songs having many, many, iterations. The songs that made it on to the album were the lucky ones as Springsteen had written around seventy making the selection process stressful for fellow band members. They saw him cast aside astounding tracks such as ‘The Promise‘, ‘Talk to Me‘ and ‘Because The Night‘. The latter two, of course, becoming hits for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes and Patti Smith respectively.

For the formidable opener, ‘Badlands‘, Springsteen toiled long & hard to give it lyrics worthy of the title and anthemic sound. The result, an intensely rebellious, sophisticated triumph. To quote Springsteen’s life-long friend and guitarist Steve Van Zandt “It’s a powerful song, wonderfully positive and optimistic in its own negative sort of atmosphere”. The opening bars set the overall scene of optimism. The lyrics spell out the reality of life with the sensational sax solo from Clarence Clemons hammering it all home.

Adam Raised a Cain‘ is one of Springsteen’s more brutal, raucous songs. The guitar-heavy father/son song about which he admits “I was a little unfair to my dad” alludes to an unhappy childhood and an inherent despondency. Perhaps due to his lurking lifelong struggle with depression which was yet to be diagnosed.

Something in the Night‘ slows the pace with its beautiful intro. However, that draws you into what becomes another sensationally dark but dynamic tale of struggle. This whole album is cut with live performances and ‘Something in the Night‘ is undeniably one of them. Springsteen’s almost a capella vocal to the slow [Max] Weinberg drum beat finishes up with the hopeful line “Chasing something in the night” before the breathtaking outro further instils a powerful drive and determination.

Several of the songs on ‘Darkness on The Edge of Town‘ are of epic proportions being more than five and six minutes of pure gratification. ‘Candys Room‘, however, at less than 3 minutes, quickly builds from a seductive narrative to a rapid-fire, passion-filled drama of desire befitting of the breakneck speed at which it is conveyed. A couple of Springsteen’s ex-girlfriends lay claim to being the subject of ‘Candy’s Room’, but the man himself refuses to be drawn on it, declaring “I’ll never tell.

From one of the shortest to the longest track on the album, ‘Racing in the Street‘ is a glorious six-minute and fifty-three seconds. Whilst containing one of the most exquisite of instrumental passages the song, much to Springsteen’s initial disappointment, also has a factual error. Despite his extensive research into cars, Springsteen, who didn’t own a car at the time, writes about a vehicle that cannot exist since, according to those in the know, “fuelie heads do not fit on a 396“. Springsteen, in the end, shrugged it off and so must the rest of us, such a tiny imperfection merely adding to his greatness.

With the signature harmonica intro, poignant saxophone interludes and magnificent electric guitar sounds ‘The Promised Land‘ together with several of the songs on ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town‘ marks the beginning of Springsteen’s folk-based rock. It is indeed, for example, a radical departure from anything on ‘Born to Run‘. In a 2010 interview, Springsteen described how “it goes back to blues and folk structures. I was not trying to be really melodic, because that immediately pulls you into the pop world, so I was distancing myself from that, and I was trying to create this mixture, this sort of rock/folk music that stretches back all the way, in some ways, to the Woody Guthrie and country music and up through the Animals. And it was thematically influenced by punk music and the times. It was 1977, there was a recession going on, so there were tough times”. The result is revolutionary.

Factory‘ is a brief but moving portrayal of the lengths people, including his father, go to to make a living and raise a family. It is a bleak but honourable view set to a wonderfully accepting melody.
Springsteen’s ability to explore quotidian reality is undoubtedly a substantial aspect of his mass endearment.

When a work of art, be it a painting, sculpture, poetry or prose, or, as in this instance, Springsteen’s song lyrics and melodies reach so deep as to strike inner chords with so many, it is essential to celebrate and perpetuate the effort, intention and achievement. Not merely that of the artist but that of the human race as a whole. Springsteen demonstrates in spades how we, as a species, can overcome and deal with life’s difficulties. As manager Jon Landau observes, “Bruce is a man with a vision and at the same time he is a person in search of a vision“.

In the title track, which Springsteen himself refers to as his “reckoning with the adult world“, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town‘ with its opulent, anthemic stature beautifully demonstrates an unwillingness to surrender to adversity. It closes the album out with an epic style that carries one forward with the knowledge that we can live the life we are passionate about, or maybe settle for what life throws at us. The things is, it is up to each one of us.

In a nutshell, a classic album.

7 Comments

  1. An absolutely classic album delivered by a man at his creative peak ( IMHO) .Possibly my favourite album of all time.

  2. Springsteen’s best album by far, great songs and performances let down by a weedy production. Compare and contrast to the sound on the widely available 1978 radio shows.

    I was lucky enough to to see him perform the complete album on the tour where he devoted to mid section of the show to a single album. Not ashamed to say that the beauty of “Racing In The Streets” brought a tear to my ear.

  3. I think Melissa etheridge got it wrong when she said when she heard Born to run for the first time she felt like she was hearing music for the first time because when I heard darkness for the first time it made me feel not only that I was hearing music for the first time but it was the first time that I heard music an awesome album moving and it puts you in his shoes at times where you want to be him holding a guitar in front of thousands of fans and you want to point to the girl the love of your life and sing every know every single song every night to the love of your life what an album masterpiece pure masterpiece

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