Darkness on the Edge of Town Turns 40

Photo Courtesy of Quora.

Photo Courtesy of Quora.

In 1975, Bruce Springsteen made his breakthrough. Born to Run put his name on everybody’s tongue and he was developing as one of the major forces to see live. He was even on the cover of Time and Newsweek, something pretty rare at the time. He had finally caught the world’s attention and everybody was thrilled to see what he had next. They had to wait for a while.

The Boss had started to feel alienated by his manager Mike Appel during the Born to Run sessions and sought to replace him. This ignited an intense legal drama between the two that kept Bruce from releasing for three years. That doesn’t sounds so long, but for the time it seemed like an eternity. Springsteen was on a roll at this time and he wisely decided to keep on writing songs. If he had taken a break during these legal troubles, he might have lost something crucial. For those three years he wrote at least 70 songs and recorded more than fifty of them. Most of them weren’t released until 2010. Some still haven’t been heard, not even by bootleggers. Ten of them would make up Darkness on the Edge of Town.

In 1978, Bruce Springsteen made his long-awaited return. However, Darkness was a much different beast than Born to Run. Born to Run was his lush opus, a testament to escaping working class towns, often being exposed as nothing but a daydream. “Thunder Road” and the title track [his two best songs] were hits, especially the former. But by 1978, he had taken a completely new direction.

Darkness is less concerned with a Wall of Sound and is more focused on precision. The hope of his previous album is still occasionally present, but stoic acceptance of the working class life is the major theme. There aren’t really singles here either, much like The Stones’ Exile on Main St. Also like Exile, slick production and epics are scrapped in favor of raw, concise songs.

The album opens with “Badlands,” perhaps its best known song. Here Springsteen describes the misery of the working life, but also finds its well-hidden rewards. “Adam Raised a Cain” is probably his most intense song with the E Street Band. Using Biblical imagery, he describes his difficult relationship with his dad and tries to find sympathy in him in spite of everything. “Something in the Night” is simply a telling of a drive down a lonely highway. “Racing in the Street,” as close to an epic as the album gets, is a dirge about youth sliding through the narrator’s hands, as he’s forced to admit he’s a screw-up. “The Promised Land” is about being restless in a day shift life and trying to find salvation to cope. “Prove it All Night” [the best song on the record] is a love letter stamped by the reality of adulthood. The title track, a fitting closer, is similar to the previous song in that it focuses on what it takes to stay alive in a dead-end town, even if it means doing something ugly.

Darkness is a change for Springsteen because, unlike his three previous records, he is not trying with everything to stay a kid. This album is about maturity. He sees the tragedy in growing up, but he decides to stop putting it off. Springsteen, at the age of 28, had accomplished what many artists spend their entire career trying to accomplish.

Darkness, like many other Springsteen albums, can be served as evidence that he is one of rock and roll’s best lyricists ever. Luckily, the E Street Band is able to give these songs the music they deserve. Springsteen’s lead guitar blazes through these songs, never overstaying its welcome. And he does set fire to these songs, adding scorching solos to “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Prove it All Night.” Springsteen’s songwriting skills often overshadow the fact that he is an astounding guitarist. Roy Bittan’s clarity on piano provides the element to the band that gives this album a singular sound and “Racing in the Street” is his shining moment.  Little Steve Van Zandt finally comes to his own with the heavy-hitters. The late Danny Federici’s swirling organ adds extra intensity to these songs, especially the Motown-infused title track. Max Weinberg holds it all together, further proof that he is the oft-forgotten legend of rock drumming. Finally, this is the ultimate showcase for the late Clarence Clemons, whose sax is as crucial to Bruce Springsteen’s songs as Springsteen’s voice. Here, his solos have never sounded better, quick, to the point, and mesmerizing, specifically on “Badlands” and “Prove it All Night.” This album was a return to the style of 1974’s The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, in which each member not only is impeccable in playing, but they are playing as a band.

Darkness on the Edge of Town proved that Springsteen hadn’t lost anything in the aftermath of Born to Run. Born to Run is still his best album, and the best album of the ‘70s, but the follow-up is still an all-time classic. In comparison to its predecessor, Darkness seems anticlimactic, but then, that’s one of its strengths. Born to Run was an astral experience and Darkness on the Edge of Town is rooted in heartbreaking reality. This album would determine the direction of the band for the next ten years, but the peak of the route is right here.