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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness On The Edge Of Town


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.


  1. Nice review. Yes it's probably the man's finest hour because there was nothing to come in the way of his artistic vision. It's said that he was uncomfortable with the fame thrust on him after Born to Run.

    But he wasn't uncomfortable with the notion of being famous. What he didn't want was to be some celebrity sex symbol wielding a guitar and making seductive but ultimately empty music.

    His driving ambitions were artistic all along so really there was no choice but to go dark at this point. Nobody could be left in any doubt as to what he was about.

    There's actually something uplifting in this album, in a way that a Michael Jackson or EDM album, for example, couldn't hope to be. The melancholy may be writ large but it's real - and if you can't feel your sadness, what chance have you to get to joy?

  2. Can't stand Springsteen. Love this album though...

  3. Couldn't agree with you more George. The man fails when doing uplifting bombastic anthems -- he's either gotta be lightweight and fun (like "Wild") or dark and brooding, and darkness makes for some great moments here. But more importantly the music is far better written and more engaging this time around, with some nicty guitar work and piano lines that actually create an atmosphere worth delving into. All in all a win, the highest point in his career.

  4. Mr. Starostin has quite significantly changed his opinion of Springsteen in the time since he first reviewed these albums some years ago on his other website. I can make a diagnosis: he had BITU disease, caused by hearing songs from Born in the USA a million times before hearing any of his other music (aside from the title track of Born to Run). This leads listeners to think that BS makes dumb songs and ugly sounds, and it changes the way that the other records are perceived. Fortunately, there is a cure: don't listen to classic rock radio for a few decades, then start listening to the oeuvre from the beginning. Presto.

    1. I had a nasty bout of that plague myself. Had I heard stuff like "Adam Raised a Cain" or "Kitty's Back" before "Born to Run" and "Glory Days", I would have explored The Boss' catalogue far sooner -- as it was, the only Springsteen I could stand for a while was Mafred Mann's rendition of "Blinded By the Light". But so far it doesn't seem like George's opinion has changed that much -- other than mellowing a bit towards BtR (while still not praising it aside from "10th Avenue"), his opinion of the first four albums is about the same.

    2. I went back to read the old reviews and you are correct: he didn't hate the first four records. What is different is the interpretive framework: he liked the early records, but begrudgingly, seemingly in spite of BITU. Now it seems that he likes BS as a whole, and does not see the early records as anomalous exceptions.

  5. When I heard the lead single, “Prove it All Night”, it reinforced my dislike of BTR big time. Overdone, corny, with a hideous, hoarse vocal. I initially heard no reason to go further. But then, much to my surprise, this was the first album to have more than a couple of worthwhile tracks since his first.
    Of course, there was still plenty more for me to hate -- “Racing in the Street”, another really annoying rehash of the escapism trip well established before; more obnoxious, phony bravado in “The Promised Land”; “Streets of Fire”, which takes on a theme that rock critics love (maybe brought on by his ex-rock critic manager) but which I find especially galling – the glorification of the noble “street people”. As if Springsteen was ever really one of those In any case, “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” was a much better song dealing with that same issue; and “Candy’s Room” a really inferior rewrite of the great “She’s the One”.
    But then there are 3 songs that clued me in to thinking that Bruce might have been on to something. “Badlands” might have been yet another anthem like “Born to Run”. But it has, as you said, a very catchy pop melody, lyrics that aren’t nearly as over the top, and a more controlled vocal than most of his stuff to date. The title track, sequenced perfectly as the last track of the album has a similarly controlled vocal and a very ominous message the almost contradicts everything else Bruce has said to this point: there’s something right around the corner coming for you foolish kids racing in the street, and you won’t like it one bit.
    Finally, you recognize the absolute brilliance of “Adam Raised a Cain”. I don’t think that Bruce needed to scream himself hoarse again to make his point. But this is totally overcome by the rest of the song. Nothing else he came up with prior to this point indicated that he could write anything with such psychological depth and power. A MUCH more universal theme than “Born to Run”.
    After buying Tracks and sampling some of The Promise, I’m convinced that most of the outtakes are way better than most of the songs that made it to the album. But he sacrificed quality for “thematic unity”. And they called prog-rockers pretentious..
    Well, despite the fact that I really wanted to hate Bruce, a fraternity brother needed an extra ticket taken off his hands (for $8 – even given 37 years inflation, I don’t think you’d reach todays’ outrageous ticket prices for rock shows) when this tour showed up at my college. After that, resistance was futile, and I was assimilated by the Bruce juggernaut. But not totally – contrary to most, apparently, I don’t think Bruce had yet produced a full length album that was a masterwork – or even totally listenable..

  6. There's not really much of a gap between this album in the last in terms of songwriting or vision. The tone is just a little darker - but still defiant and hopeful. Badlands and Promised Land are about breaking free and finding a better life despite the misery and frustration, and the same theme is visible in just about every song here. Badlands is a much darker song lyrically than anything here because it ends in total defeat after all the dreams are over. It just doesn't sound that way because the sound was more upbeat on Born to Run, although not as determinedly catchy and commercial as on Born in the USA.

    1. I know that the chorus on "Promised Land" goes "I believe in the promised land", but surely that is not what anyone takes away from the song?
      I absolutely love the song, it's smashing great, but what I love about it is how it percfectly express that total desperation, frustration and anguish, but I think I agree, it isn't completely negative, it's an anguish that doesn't necessarily have destructive results, it could led one to constructive action. "Find somebody itching for something to start". But it isn't at this point decided yet what that "something" will be... could be a riot, arson, racing in the street, wild romance, political action, starting a Workers' Education Group, or it could all simmer back out into nothing, you don't know, all that's know now is the desperation to do something, anything.

      It's a great song! A great album, although extremely inconsistent. I love, love, love "Adam Raised a Cain", "The Promised Land" and "Streets of Fire". A+!
      I love "Racing in the Streets" "Darkness on the Edge of Town", A!
      I like "Something in the Night" and "Factory", B+!

      I don't exactly dislike "Badlands" or "Prove It All Night", or even "Candy's Room", but they don't fit my conception of this record. Because those three big desperate A+ ones tower over everything else so mightily.

      Bruce's best for sure.

  7. I meant Backstreets second time around.

  8. "Adam" is indeed a very cool vibe and I do like his use of biblical imagery. And it's a good example of the "Sins of the Fathers" trope. However, as usual, Bruce overblows it with an over-the-top delivery. That weird drawl/slur he tries to wring out on the chorus (Ed'm rised a kine) just ruins it for me. If he would've just stuck with his usual sneering growl, it would've been more arresting. As it is, it sounds like just another of his one-man dramas on 11.