The “Listen Again” series went over well enough here in the Los Angeles area that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some L.A. TV execs and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums but the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be Rolling Stone magazine five-star albums. In this edition we discuss Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
For those of you not up on your rock history, Bruce (Frederick Joseph) Springsteen was born on September 23, 1949. Springsteen, nicknamed “The Boss,” is an American singer-songwriter. He often works with the E Street Band and is best known for his heartland rock signature sound and his Americana monologues about growing up in his birthplace of New Jersey.
His work to date has included commercially successful rock recordings as well as folk-oriented albums. One of his most critically-acclaimed studio albums was his fourth album Darkness on the Edge of Town. In October of 1977 Springsteen (lead vocals, lead guitar and harmonica) stepped into the recording studio. He was backed by The E Street Band then comprised of :Roy Bittan (piano and vocals), Clarence Clemons (saxophone and vocals), Danny Federici (organ and glockenspiel), Garry Tallent (bass), Steve Van Zandt (rhythm guitar and vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums).
When the dust settled Springsteen had again employed his now famous “four corners” approach starting both sides of the platter with tunes focused on overcoming circumstances and closing each side with sad songs of hopeless situations. Side one opens on “Badlands”. This, like all the other cuts, is a Springsteen original. This one focuses on a man who is down and out and looking for a better life.
The second selection is the slightly biblical bit and keynote cut “Adam Raised a Cain”. It’s followed by the lengthier “Something in the Night” and the perhaps all too brief “Candy’s Room”. The side ends on the longest track on the entire project “Racing in the Street” which is a dead end job dirge that some consider Springsteen’s best song. Here he also pays tribute to the Martha & the Vandellas tune “Dancing in the Street” with the line “Summer’s here and the time is right for racing in the street,” much like the Rolling Stones’ appropriation of the line in their song “Street Fightin’ Man”.
The flip side opens on “The Promised Land”. This being one of the “corner cuts” it focuses on trying to make things better and also serves as a tuneful tip of the hat to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”. Also included on this side are the oft’times neglected “Factory” and fan favorite “Streets of Fire”.
The next number is “Prove It All Night”. This is perhaps the penultimate song here. In the tradition of rock and roll Springsteen equates the surrendering of a gal’s virtue to love and vows to “prove it all night”. (It would be chosen to be the first single off the LP as well.)
The closing cut is the titular track “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. It serves as the final corner to Springsteen’s standard album layout at this point. It’s another sad dirge-like song about a situation that seems hopeless. Another Springsteen move here involves his use of the first-person perspective and the recurring themes of darkness, driving and cars, things that can influence one in a negative fashion and birth or love.
Released in March of 1978 on the Columbia label, the finished work had a running time of almost 43 minutes. The two singles off the album–“Prove It All Night” and “Badlands”—would make it to number 33 and 43 respectively. The LP itself climbed to number 5 on the Billboard Pop Album chart. (It would remain on the charts for 97 weeks and eventually go triple-platinum.)
It would be re-released in 1985 and make it up to 167 on the Billboard 200 chart. The darkness remained through the new millennium as it would be slotted in at number 151 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003.
2010 witnessed the release of a reissue box set which had been planned for prior release in 2008 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original record’s release. Apparently it had been delayed a couple years due to Springsteen’s numerous other projects. It reached number 16 on the Billboard 200.
While the critics praised it a bit less than Born to Run, they all remained positive. Darkness on the Edge of Town rejected the different production embellishments used on Born to Run in favor of a more hard-nosed sound fueled by Springsteen’s raw vocals and furious guitar. The band can truly be heard here as they first prove their worth as one of the genre’s greatest supporting groups.
More importantly though is that the words and music here demonstrate a comparative maturity in Springsteen’s writing. This release has a bite that almost makes the Spector-like Born to Run sound a little soft as Springsteen begins to assert himself as a guitarist in the same spirit as Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. The song lyrics also demonstrate more compassion than his previous fantasies of living the sweet life.
He notes both the ache of hope against hope and the pain of lost innocence. There has for decades now been a messianic element to Springsteen criticism that is probably present mainly because to his fans he embodies the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of rock ‘n’ roll as handed down from Elvis Presley. Once an unquestionable major force in this development, Springsteen best reveals this in now classic recordings such as Darkness on the Edge of Town/Col. JC-35318.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.