Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Bruce Springsteen's fourth album and considered among his best, represents a change of direction for the songwriter as well as a change of artistic perspective when it comes to his relationship with his audience and his way of communicating his ideas through his words and music. Written for the most part during a rare time of inactivity for Bruce, as a legal suit brought by his former manager prevented him from not only releasing another album but also from recording , Springsteen found himself at a crossroads. Holed up in a New York hotel room after having spent many of his previous years on the road or making records, Bruce suddenly found himself at loose ends with nowhere to go but down. His music on hold, his work taken from him by a shady manager, and having no real place to call home, Springsteen found that perhaps life was not the dream he imagined it would be. Alone, living out of a room, unable to work, and seeing very little financial gain from his huge success not long before, he did the only thing he could do. He wrote songs. And the songs which were born out of this uncertain time were no longer of the sort of someone yearning to dream and live and run, as many of his songs had been about in the past. But instead they were songs of dreams failing, life stalling, and the road ending. Instead of looking ahead as he had done in his previous work, he simply took a hard cold look at where he was at. And the results are nothing short of spectacular.
The songs on Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which came from this period of personal darkness for Mr. Springsteen, stand in somewhat stark contrast to where he had been with his songwriting before. The hope a pretty girl, a fast car and The Jersey Shore used to bring, however fleeting, has been washed away on Darkness as things that simply didn't workou,t and which held little value or use to begin with. In the place of those things are people who chased their dreams and found them broken or nonexistent when their feet finally hit the ground. So they took up desperate hope, a bit of faith, and dead end jobs or worse just as a means to survive another day. Often times to mixed results, at best.
The album kicks off with the anthemic fist pumping rocker Badlands, and it is clear from the start this is a place far from the pleasures of the Jersey Shore and asking Rosalita to come out for a night of partying and good times. In this song Springsteen's subject finds "trouble in the heartland" and is "caught in a crossfire" he doesn't understand. Running on a bit of hope and a feeling " it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," it's a desperate song of simple desires and the struggle of people spending their lives "waiting for a moment that just don't come". This theme of broken hearts and broken people struggling to continue life with some kind of dignity, faith, and love in spite of theie losing ways in life dominate the entire album, and to great effect and reward for the listener.
Musically, The E Street Band is up to the task at hand and never let things get too heavy or bogged down, despite the darker subject matter. On Candy's Room, a sad tale of a man infatuated with a hooker and who will give "all that I've got to give" to make her his if just for a night, the band plows ahead like a freight train, never letting the tradgedy of the song hit too hard, but keeping things wound tight enough to convey the lonliness and frustration of the people involved. And on more hopeful tracks such as The Promised Land and Prove It All Night, the band goes along for the ride with just the right amount of flair and steadiness to deliver the songwriters vision with crystal clear clarity. Stripped down, no nonsense, more direct, and with less clutter and more sharpness in the mix then on previous albums, this is The E Street Band at there leanest, meanest, and most effective to date. And they pull the whole thing off in good rockin' fashion.
The standout tracks on this record come midway through and at the very end of the album. Racing In The Streets, a song about accepting your lot in life and somehow making the best of it, is the most thoughtful balled Springsteen had written to date and paints a vivid picture of a man and woman carrying on in the face of lost dreams and a life wanted that never had a chance to exist for them in the first place. So they just go ahead and do what they have always done, however boring, mundane, or useless. The only other alternative seeming to be "given up livin" altogether. But it's the album closer and title track that brings the whole album home and lays it all to rest. The journey of this album does not end in the shreds of hope and faith and love and simple work that somehow sustained the lives of those struggling in the songs that came before, but it indeed ends right where the title of the album suggests. And it is one of the more powerful tales of loss, desolation, and despair that Springsteen has ever written.
Coming three years after his breakthrough album Born To Run, which simultaneously found his face on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines hailed as the future of Rock n Roll, Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the first album that Springsteen set out to make that he had real time to contemplate. Whereas his creative vision was clear and well defined on his first three albums with his locales and cast of characters set within the confines of the familiar New Jersey of his youth, Darkness On The Edge Of Town finds it's subjects adrift in an often threatening world of broken dreams, broken lives, and dead end jobs that offer you a chance to survive at best. If that. No longer "Born To Run," on Darkness the dreaming stops and real life starts to set in. And it's this album that would give voice to Springsteens lyrics, music, and creativity for the decade to come and beyond. Number 151 on Rolling Stones top 500 albums of all time, Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the sound of an artist finding his own true voice and putting it to the best use that he can. Unflinching, uncomprimising, hard, cold, and perhaps most of all compassionate, it is a work well deserving of it's place among Rock n Roll's very best.