Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part IV: Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

"Well some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway, anyhow
Well now I lost my money and I lost my wife
Those things don't seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I'll be on that hill, 'cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town..."

Born to Run is the kind of album that could have destroyed a million lesser artists. Springsteen had just released something insanely vast and career defining, an album that became the soundtrack for the lives of countless fans and made Bruce a star; an "instant classic," so to speak. Who, having released something like that, something that could legitimately be heralded, not just as the album of the year, not just as the album of the decade, but one of the definitive albums of rock and roll, would not shrink away from recording the follow-up? It couldn't have been easy for Springsteen, who, coming off the grueling, make-or-break sessions for Born to Run, was finally rewarded with the success he'd been seeking for years. His record contract was safe, but he was now tasked with writing a follow-up to an album that was, quite possibly, impossible to top. Perhaps, then, it was a blessing in disguise what happened next.

Soon after the release of Born to Run, Springsteen was embroiled in a lawsuit with his former manager, Mike Appel, and was barred from recording in the studio for 18 straight months. This resulted in two things: the first was that Springsteen wrote an awful lot in that period of time. Though the album that came out of these sessions is a rather brief at ten songs, the songs that didn't make it to the final album could make up two albums of their own. All of these b-sides were released last year on a collection called The Promise (named after the set's defining cut). A few of them were given to other artists, like "Because the Night," which went on to be a big hit for Patti Smith, or "Fire," which was recorded by several artists before Springsteen released it as a part of the Live 1975-85 collection. The second consequence of the 18 month exile from the studio was that the material Springsteen wrote was a lot darker than most of the cuts that made up Born to Run. That album flowed with themes of youth, escapism and the American dream. By the time Darkness finally took form, it was essentially Born to Run from the other side of the tracks, about what happens when those dreams don't quite work out.

It's not all doom and gloom however, as Springsteen utilizes the "four corners" technique, the same idea that framed Born to Run, where each side opens with a hopeful anthem, but ends amid failure, regret and broken dreams. The opener here, "Badlands," is one of Springsteen's biggest rock songs, and was often used as the opener at shows on the legendary tour that followed this album's release (where shows often stretched on towards the four hour mark). Steve van Zandt's backing vocals make the song soar even higher, and establish him as a welcome presence on the record. "Poor men wanna be rich, rich me wanna be king," Springsteen declares emphatically, and for a moment it feels like Born to Run all over again, with a Big Man solo and all. And then, the darkness begins to appear. 

That first trace of the shadows appear on "Adam Raised a Cain," a harsh, hard hitting rocker that was (and probably still is) the loudest thing Springsteen had ever committed to tape. Anger permeates the song, and Springsteen's vocals sound almost unhinged, building to a big guitar solo and a chorus of gang vocals. The song sits in sharp contrast to the one that follows it, the hopeless ballad, "Something in the Night." Springsteen sounds broken, singing once more about escape, but this time around, it feels so different than it did on "Thunder Road" or "Born to Run." On those two tracks he sang with a sort of unbridled joy, naive and young and full of life; he sang about getting out of a town that was holding him down, getting to some place where life would be glorious again. Here, there's no hope of glory, and there's no joy. He's running away because he can't take the monotony of what his life has become any longer, because he's just looking for something to give his life meaning again. The last verse might be the most definitive of the album, except perhaps the above quote from the title track:

"When we found the things we loves,
They were crushed and dying in the dirt
We tried to pick up the pieces
And get away without getting hurt
But they caught us at the state line
And burned our cars in one last fight
Left us running, burned and blind
Chasing something in the night"

When Bruce sings those words, the band drops out, and he's left with nothing but a single drum to accompany him. It's one of the most haunting moments of any Springsteen album, a moment of clarity where everything just seems to hit twice as hard. This song, I think, is quite underrated. It's rarely played live, and never mentioned as one of this album's strongest tracks, but it's a personal favorite of mine. There have been nights where I've listened to this song, with the highway rushing by me, where everything else seemed to fade away. The way you can hear the narrator's hope evaporate as the song goes on is one of the most breathtaking facets of any song I've ever heard.

"Candy's Room" opens with a rush of symbols, a flourish of piano keys and spoken word vocals from Springsteen. It builds into one of the album's biggest songs, a catchy straight-up rock and roll tune that is a bit of anomaly on this record. The guitar solo breakdown halfway through is truly exhilerating, an Bruce's commanding vocals take the song out, leading flawlessly into the lone piano that starts "Racing in the Streets," a gorgeous piece of piano balladry that functions as an ode for all the broken dreams and missed opportunities that it's characters are nursing. Springsteen sings it with a resigned, monotonous tone that is unbelievably effective, letting the song's gorgeous melody do much of the work. The song, which is near-perfect in this version, was released in an alternate full band arrangement on The Promise that, while not necessarily better, is just as great, and takes the song in an interesting new direction. It's hard to fault the original though, with it's haunting piano melody and the mournful B3 organ line that takes it out. And as a side 1 closer, while not quite as powerful as the kick in the chest that was "Backstreets," it ends the first half of the album on a  resoundingly beautiful and thematic note.

Side 2 rockets off with "The Promised Land," another anthemic, uptempo number, with rousing guitar, harmonica and saxophone solos (Clemons doesn't appear half as much on this record as he did on Born to Run, but when he does, he's as golden as ever). Bruce sounds like a different person here than he did on "Racing," singing with renewed hope and vigor, advising his listeners to "blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted," and singing, in a declarative voice, "I believe in a promised land." The renewal doesn't last for long however, as we soon are brought back to reality where, for every dream of escape to that "promised land," there's someone who never got out of their hometown, like the working class character on "Factory." Springsteen has gone on record to say that the song is about his father, with whom he always had a strained relationship. That relationship would prove to be a defining inspiration to Springsteen throughout this part of his career, and this gorgeous, mid-tempo piano centered number is the first example of that. Just like "Night" did on the last record, "Factory" brought Bruce one step closer to being "the Boss." 

"Streets of Fire" opens with a duet between organ and voice on it's first verse before the full band explodes into context on the refrain. Roy Bittan's piano continues to define the record, as do Bruce's rousing guitar solos (the one that plays halfway through this song is especially thrilling), and Bruce offers one of his best vocal performances on the album, with rich, passionate delivery in the higher sections. The song, while not one of my favorite Springsteen cuts, works remarkably well in context. The same can be said for "Prove it All Night," a rousing rocker where the narrator shoots off sparks of rebellion, trying to live his life to it's fullest, even if it's not quite what he wanted it to be. When Clemons chimes in with a commanding solo, it's not hard to see why this one became a live staple. It was one of the few Darkness cuts I got to hear when I saw him live (the other being "Badlands"), and while it would not have been one of my first choices, it's undeniable that the song reaches a higher place in it's live format.

Springsteen often saves the best for last, and this album is no exception. This time, it's in the form of the title track, a flawless piece of mid-tempo rock and roll, with an unforgettable piano intro and bass line, that takes the album out in splendor. This song, in four and a half minutes, encompasses every theme and nuance of this album, brings the characters out for one last encore, and then fades away. It may not be as epic or as career-defining as "Jungleland" was, but rest assured, it functions in many of the same ways, and ends up being one of my all time favorite album closers because of that. The narrator seems, at last, to have resigned himself to the life he is living, and in the last verse, instead of running from the darkness, he embraces it. He's seen all the heartbreak and bad luck a man can take and he's got nothing left to lose, but somehow, the title track feels oddly uplifting, like perhaps our characters have finally realized that, even though they didn't escape this town or find the American dream, life still goes on, and there are still moments of beauty, even if the beauty is hidden somewhere in that darkness on the edge of town. It's what makes the closer arguably my favorite non-Born to Run Springsteen song.

Overall, despite the fact that Springsteen could never top Born to Run, he delivered what is very nearly the best possible follow-up. The only flaw I've ever seen in this album is that Bruce decided to leave "The Promise" off of it. That song epitomizes everything this album is about in one perfect ballad (it even references "Thunder Road" by name, to symbolize the regret and broken dreams this album is so good at describing). Since it was first released, in it's piano acoustic arrangement on the Tracks collection back in 1998 (an even greater full band version appears on last year's collection), it's became the definitive Bruce B-side (which is saying something, since this man has more B-sides than he has album tracks), known for it's beautiful, flowing melody and it's heartbreaking lyrics, lamenting a life that could have been. It would have functioned perfectly as a penultimate lead-in to the title track, but it's ultimately hard to fault an album as good as this one. As it stands, it's probably the second or third greatest collection of songs Springsteen ever put together, and for me, it's second only to Born to Run in personal importance. That album was undoubtedly the one that made me fall in love with Springsteen, the one that finally caught my ear and made me listen, but Darkness was the album that made me a true fan. The day after my revelatory first listen to Born to Run, Darkness was the album I chose to listen to next, thanks in part to it's appearance on a "recommended if you like..." section for the most recent Butch Walker album. I had to run some errands that day, and I put Darkness on. Right from the very first seconds of "Badlands," I was sold, and as I drove through my snow covered town that morning, listening to this record, I realized that I'd probably just embarked on one of the greatest musical journeys of my life. The fact that this album now sits in my all-time top ten is pretty rock-solid proof that I was right.

1 comment:

  1. Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town broke new ground for The Boss in 1978. A counterpoint to the operatic elegance of Born to Run, the album was an angry, raw record that burst forth after a three-year hiatus.
    Because of its darker tones, some might call Darkness a difficult album, but despite this, it's a cherished gem for many.Collecting stories and photos from hundreds of fans, The Light in Darkness celebrates this classic record, allowing readers to revisit the excitement of that moment when the needle found the grooves in that first cut and the thundering power of "Badlands" shook across the hi-fi for the very first time. Or the uninitiated, but soon-to-be-converted teenager, brought along by friends and finding salvation at one of the legendary three-plus hour concerts - shows that embodied all the manic fury of a revival meeting.