Darkness of the Edge of Town:  The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen

From a musical perspective, Bruce Springsteen’s first three albums start out pretty quietly.  His fourth, Darkness of the Edge of Town, originally released in 1978 and re-released this week, starts out with a thundering drum intro that grabs you and doesn’t let go.  Springsteen needs your attention, and he needs it now because he’s going to use the next 10 songs to challenge you to make your life substantial.  This is not an album for the casual listener.  This album challenges you to take stock of all aspects of your life – your job, your relationships (with yourself and with others), your satisfaction, and whether or not you are staking your claim to make your life one actually worth living.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen at his best because any listener can identify with the characters of this album.   These songs aren’t about fictional characters -- they’re about you.  You don’t have to work in a Factory to feel like your job is stripping you of your soul.   You have a strained relationship with someone in your life; it doesn’t have to necessarily be with your father (Adam Raised a Cain).   You have a secret in your life that you have trouble facing (Darkness on the Edge of Town).  Sometimes you feel that there is so much more that you want out of life, and that you deserve much more than you have (Prove it All Night).  These are decidedly different themes from Springsteen’s previous work.  The characters on Born to Run had “one last chance to make it real;” the characters on Darkness “hate for just being born.”  They feel like they had their one last chance and blew it; Springsteen doesn’t want you to end up the same way.

One of the things that the digital music age has stripped us of is the sense of how albums were constructed.    Imagine listening to “Racing in the Street” the last song on Side 1.  The song contains some of the most harrowing lyrics of Springsteen’s career:

“Some guys they just give up living

And start dying little by little, piece by piece

Some guys come home from work and wash up

And go racin' in the street”

 

And towards the end of the song Springsteen mentions the search for the Promised Land, a recurring theme throughout his work.

 

“She sits on the porch of her daddy's house

But all her pretty dreams are torn

She stares off alone into the night

With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels

Rumbling through this Promised Land

Tonight my baby and me we're gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins off our hands”


After the song is over, you have to turn the record over.  You’ve just finished listening to one of Springsteen’s most despairing songs, and now you start Side 2 with the “The Promised Land”, one of his most hopeful and a perfect follow-up to “Racing in the Street.”   I think it’s the best 1-2 combo of songs in Springsteen’s entire catalog.

 

Darkness on the Edge of town lays the foundation for the central themes that all of Springsteen’s best work touch on  -- that the world can be a mean place full of pain, disappointment, failed dreams, failed relationships, and, well, darkness.  How do we face it?  He answers that directly in the first song, “Badlands.”

“I believe in the love that you gave me

I believe in the faith that could save me

I believe in the hope and I pray that some day

It may raise me above these Badlands”