BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN (1978)
1) Badlands; 2) Adam Raised A Cain; 3) Something In The Night; 4) Candy's Room; 5) Racing In The Street; 6) The Promised Land; 7) Factory; 8) Streets Of Fire; 9) Prove It All Night; 10) Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
Three years of litigation with his former manager kept the people in frenzied suspense over the sequel to Born To Run — over this period, Springsteen wrote a veritable shitload of songs, some of which would later spill over to The River and others would surface much later on Tracks and The Promise. As the legal troubles finally wound down and it came to deciding which of the songs should be finally given the green light, Bruce made the correct decision — instead of going the «Formula Lockdown» routine like a B-grade entertainer, he chose the «Artistic Sabotage Route» like a proper A-grade artist. Sure enough, Born To Run wrote him into history, but it was Darkness On The Edge Of Town that ensured his perspectives for longevity.
I guess there may have been a bit of «punk» influence reflected here, not in the music as such which is very decidedly traditionalistic and features not a single nod to punk or New Wave, but in the overall spirit (including the album cover, where we certainly have a much «punkier» mugshot of Bruce than the bearded guitar-hero posturing of Born To Run). But if so, that is more of a chronological coincidence than a deliberate exploitation of the prevailing mood — you really do not need to dig in much into the musical context of 1977-78 to understand the stylistic shift from Born To Run to Darkness; this has much more to do with the artist's internal reshaping (or, at least, the happenings in his personal life) than any social context.
Ironically, the song that Bruce selected to open the album, ʽBadlandsʼ, is somewhat misleading — its opening piano riff is actually taken from the Animals' version of ʽDon't Let Me Be Misunderstoodʼ, but the song is transposed from B minor into E major, and the mood is shifted from tragic to uplifting-optimistic, with a message that is fairly close to ʽBorn To Runʼ: "We'll keep pushin' till it's understood / And these badlands start treating us good". The arrangement is nowhere near as pompous, though: technically, all the ingredients are the same, but the band is tighter, «poppier», and a little less wild — the «drunken fervor» days are over, and here we get a more sober protagonist who "got my facts learned real good right now". Yes indeed, but ultimately the song should still be classified under «optimistic anthem», and it gives you the impression that this is going to be a similarly-styled sequel to Born To Run, if a little bit more grown-up and restrained.
But then we have ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ, and all expectations are shattered — the single blackest song in the Boss' catalog that far, and in some ways, maybe the single blackest song in his catalog altogether. I still find myself surprised that, for some reason, very few people ever single it out from the rest of the tunes here, and that quite a few people completely misinterpret it as a failed attempt at playing a «wild guitar hero» or even at «cock rock» (!!; yes, I've actually seen it called that by at least one or two persons). The only explanation I can offer is that it is too unsettling, too unusual for the average Bruce fan. But as for myself, this is the only song by the man that almost literally makes my hair stand on end if I'm in the right mood.
Melody-wise, it is just a decently written blues-rock number, but its strength is in the perfect combination of lyrics, vocals, and guitar playing — few, if any, other songs convey so well the idea of it being impossible to escape the chains that bind one to one's past. Formally, it's just about the relation between the singer and his father (Douglas Springsteen was alive and well at the time, and probably felt a bit miffed upon hearing this), but it applies equally well to any other blood or non-blood ties, and the use of Biblical imagery in the title is justified because this is the first time when Bruce does get all Old Testamental on our asses — the solemnity, the darkness, the cruelness of the situation. The guitar solo on the song is his best ever — simplicity itself, but blind rage incarnate as the man throws his entire weight on those couple of strings, now in fast tremolo mode, now in slo-mo, now alternating low-pitched groans with high-pitched wails. And the «overscreaming» for which he is sometimes blamed has nothing here to do with the usual melodrama — it's aggressive, violent, deadly serious and deeply personal overscreaming, comparable with anything Lennon did on Plastic Ono Band. This here is really a man channelling some of his deep childhood traumas you don't want to know about, but to which many of us could probably relate one way or the other. As he works those muscles at the very bottom of the vocal tract on the final "Lost but not forgotten, from the dark heart of a dream!...", it is like a final blast of self-damnation — no escape! — and the final «tribal» harmonies, slowly fading out, are escorting our hero straight away to Hell because "you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames". No matter what you do, no matter who you are, it all ends the same.
Clearly, there was nothing even remotely like this kind of vision on any of the preceding three albums — and once the album derails from ʽBadlandsʼ and establishes this tone, it casts its shadow on everything else, though no other tune quite matches the intensity level of ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ. It does come close on ʽStreets Of Fireʼ, where we have ourselves more screaming and more of those ecstatic guitar solos and more of that existentialist desperation — even without the blood ties aspect, we are still "stranded on the wire across streets of fire", which is a pretty nerve-wrecking experience, and I think that it is musically supported by something like two chords on the organ and an equally minimalistic bass line, and the Boss giving his best «Neanderthal ancestor of Van Morrison» impression. Again, compare something like ʽBackstreetsʼ — the former barked a lot, but this one bites, snaps, and spits out. Just compare how the ecstasy is handled on "hiding out on the backstreets!" and how the inner rage is externalized on "streets of fire, streets of fire!". Yes, I sure prefer the aggressive Springsteen to the romantic Springsteen. If this is what they call «maturity», I'll take it.
Even ʽRacing In The Streetʼ, which once again returns us to the territory of Bruce's «epic stories of the working class», has a darker sheen here than ʽJunglelandʼ or ʽBackstreetsʼ — we will forget for a minute that its main piano/vocal melody pilfers Neil Young's ʽAfter The Gold Rushʼ, will agree that the "summer's here and the time is right for racin' in the street" line is an intelligent rephrasing of Martha & The Vandellas in a brand new context, and will take this for an honest-sounding late night drunk moment of self-introspection by the guy who used to think that he was «born to run» but now finds out that «racin' in the street» is all he's really capable of. Is the song better written than anything on Born To Run? Hell no. There ain't that much «composing» involved on either of the two albums. But grimness and subtlety agree much better with this guy than grandiosity and that old on-top-of-the-world feel.
The record still smells of «teen drama» every now and then — for instance, the highly unusual spoken word intro to ʽCandy's Roomʼ is most reminiscent of the old style of the Shangri-Las, the uncrowned proto-emo queens of Sixties' suicidal teen-pop. It has its lyrical drawbacks — ʽThe Factoryʼ is just way too blatant even for Bruce, who, after all, never pretended to be Woody Guthrie in the past and has no reason to begin pretending now. It has its uncomfortable outbursts of brutal masculinity (if any song actually comes close to real «cock rock» on the album, it is ʽProve It All Nightʼ, but I guess there should have been at least a little something for Bruce's adoring lady fans on the record, or they'd all desert him for Lou Gramm). It ain't perfect, because Bruce Springsteen never made a perfect album — he couldn't have, by definition.
But of all the albums that Bruce Springsteen churned out in his career, this one is my favorite. Not because I automatically prefer «dark» over «light» (hey, I'm a big McCartney fan, after all), but because Bruce's «dark» always feels more natural, less contrived/theatrical to me. Born To Run was an explosive escapist blast, all power and volume and energy and extrovertness; Darkness On The Edge Of Town im-plodes rather than ex-plodes, and sends out probes into the darkest corners of the soul — sometimes they just shoot by, but sometimes they hit right in the middle, and this makes me convinced that Bruce Springsteen does have creepy magical powers, except he is always being careful about not relying on them too much. I mean, yes, I do believe that ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ is the best song he ever came up with, but good luck trying to turn that one into a popular megahit — you might as well try and do it with a Swans song.
I should probably also add that the record has a great big share of memorable piano riffs — if Clarence Clemons was the Boss' main guy on Born To Run, here the key player is unquestionably Roy Bittan, whose phrasing dominates all but two or three of the tunes (ʽStreets Of Fireʼ with its Federici organ is the major exception), and although the riffs are simple and, as has already been hinted at, frequently unoriginal, they are memorable and somewhat easier to pin to your brain cells (well, my brain cells at least) than anything off Born To Run. This, of course, is a natural precursor to the even more simplified and streamlined keyboard pop of Born In The USA, but as long as it is done in an emotionally meaningful manner, it's more of a blessing than a problem. I mean, it is clear that at this point the «jazz-funk» experiments of ye olde E Street Band are no longer a viable proposition anyway, so we might just relax and wish The Boss a successful career of developing sharp pop instincts instead. Here, he's really doing a good job.
Some day, perhaps, when «revisionists» like me get the upper hand and Truth triumphs over Circumstance-Triggered Critical and Commercial Success, Darkness On The Edge Of Town will become regarded by the mainstream as this man's finest hour. Until then, I'll just be holding my thumbs up a little longer than usual and hope for the corresponding cumulative magical effect. Then again, most people don't care that much for bleakness and pessimism, and upon second thought, that's probably more of a blessing than a curse in the long run.