When he began recording Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen set out to make the best rock record of all time, but after the success that Springsteen achieved following the release of the record it turned out to be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. Springsteen became one of the most famous figures in rock music and was prophesised as being its saviour and the man who would guide the genre into the future. After having been thrust from a being relative unknown to something of a megastar, Springsteen was unprepared for this level of fame and as a result he tried to distance himself from it.
His 1978 follow up Darkness on the Edge of Town was the outcome of this disenchantment with fame and Springsteen’s subsequent withdrawal from the limelight. It differs greatly in both its lyrical themes, production and musical style. Where Born to Run was optimistic and ambitious both lyrically and musically, Darkness relies more on traditional rock songs that are led by guitars, piano and drums, and the lyrics talk of the mundanity and misery of life, and how the dreams talked about on Born to Run will, more likely than not, wither and die. Despite the change in approach, the quality of the record is undoubtable and cemented Springsteen’s place as one of the premier artists in mainstream rock history.
From the get-go the theme of hope carries over from Born to Run but with Bruce being three years older and wiser, this hope has turned from passionate and optimistic belief in the future to something else entirely. Badlands is quite possibly sung by the protagonist of Born to Run or Thunder Road whose grandiose plans for life have never materialised and he is coming to the slow realisation that a life of nothingness awaits him unless he makes a chance quick. “I believe in the hope and I pray that one day it may raise me above these Badlands” he sings, but it’s said more with desperation for it to be true rather than a genuine belief that life will improve. Musically, the song rocks harder and with more urgency than anything on Bruce’s predecessor, the piano, guitars and drums all being played at a frantic and aggressive pace, fitting in well with the lyrics portraying a growing anger and fear with the way that life and life’s prospects are quickly deteriorating for this man who is trapped in a bleak scenario.
This dark theme continues on the next standout song, Candy’s Room. Told from the viewpoint of the infatuated young boy who is in love with her, Candy’s Room is about a prostitute whose life has gone down a dark road. She puts on a façade for her clients but “there’s a sadness hidden in her pretty face” as the boy puts it. As a rapidly played drum line underlines the piano and the guitars, the song unfolds a sad story for both the storyteller and its subject. The boy seems to really believe that Candy loves him and will leave her lifestyle for him, when clearly she is in too deep now and needs the money, and from Candy’s point of view, the sadness in her face is likely to be there for the foreseeable future as she has become trapped in that dead end life that Bruce sings about in Badlands.
Taking a complete musical turn away from the hard rocking Candy’s Room, the next song is the slowest and sparsest one in Bruce’s discography up to this point. Racing in the Street, which also doubles as the album’s longest piece at 7 minutes, is a piano ballad telling a sombre tale of a man who races cars on the strip in order to try and escape the mundanity of life. As the song progresses and the man continues to earn money from racing, we’re introduced to the racer’s girlfriend who is seemingly deeply depressed with her empty life in the city as she is left waiting for her man to come back with the look of “one who hates for just being born”. However, the song ends on a somewhat optimistic note with the pair of them getting out of the city and heading for the coast and hopefully greener pastures, but with the overarching theme of the album being broken dreams who really knows whether their lives will improve. Racing in the Street still stands as one of Springsteen’s finest ballads and one of his most poignant songs about the typical working classes.
As Bruce likes to do, he starts the second side with another loud and up-tempo track. When the harmonica crashes in to begin The Promised Land your attention is certainly grabbed. While this track may seem more optimistic than other tracks due to its catchy hooks and Bruce wailing “I believe in a promised land”, there is still an undercurrent of tragedy to the song. Once again, a car is the setting for a song on Darkness as the protagonist drives home through the desert and thinks about his life. He thinks of how he controls so little of it, how he works hard but never seems to get anywhere, and how he feels his anger at his helplessness beginning to grow. He decides in that moment to take his fate into his own hands, turn round and drive back into the ‘storm’ which represents the unknown. He’s going to use the storm to cleanse him and give him a fresh start and hopefully present him with a life that has possibilities. This idea of taking a chance on the unknown is frequent, both on this album and on Born to Run, and shows that even though this album is a lot darker in tone, Bruce still holds out a certain level that there is a brighter life somewhere out there for the people of small towns across America.
Where Darkness falls down against Born to Run is that there are a number of tracks that are significantly weaker than the rest. Both Factory and Adam Raised a Cain are much poorer than any song on Born to Run. Factory is a simply monotonous song, both musically and lyrically which brings no new ideas or invokes any thoughts in the listener, and Adam Raised a Cain is Bruce singing about the issues he has with his dad in a pretty uninspiring way and with a vocal performance that is pretty poor by his standards. Neither of these songs drags the quality of the album down a great deal but it is songs like these that stop this album ever being regarded as a true, basically perfect masterpiece.
The album ends very strongly with two of the best songs on the album. Prove It All Night’s strengths lie in its music. Its great bassline and piano melody make the song one of the catchier tracks, and a killer sax solo from Clarence really add to the song. The lyrics talk of Bruce and his girl going out into the night and pursuing life rather than waiting for life to come to them. The closer, with which the album shares its name, has possibly the darkest lyrics on the album. Sharing strong parallels with Racing in the Street, the character of this song quite possibly knows that characters in that. On Darkness we encounter a man who has lost everything, his wife, his home, his job and now spends his nights racing “on the edge of town” with others who have also seen their lives fall by the wayside. He has grown tired with trying to maintain a normal life and has finally given up on it, choosing to move into the darkness where dreams and men slowly decay. There is no happy ending to this album, just a man who has grown weary of the pain life continues to throw at him, like so many other characters who feature on the album, and so many people who have battled through life.
Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town are a pair of albums that are intertwined in my eyes. They tell the stories of the same people. Where we saw naïve optimism on Born to Run, on Darkness we see grim realisation from these people as they realise that life isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. Darkness is a tough and rugged album from Bruce and musically it significantly diverges from the wall-of-sound sleekness on Born to Run. This style changes perfectly fits the lives of the characters as they too have become tough and rugged. While a few tracks may weaken the overall impact of Darkness, the overall style and sound of the album and the quality of most of the songs make the album stand as a remarkable achievement in story-telling and it cemented Springsteen’s place as a true rock music master.