Remember When: Bruce Springsteen Stripped It Down with ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’

After Born to Run seemed to fulfill his promise as the future of rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen could have played it safe and repeated the formula. Instead, he chose a starker approach on his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The decision might have confused some people at the time. But Darkness helped transform Springsteen from a heady wunderkind to an established artist who could grow with his audience. Let’s take a look at how back this classic LP came into existence.

Lawsuits and Layoffs
The three-year hiatus between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town had nothing to do with any lack of productivity by Springsteen. He was constantly writing at this time. But he was barred from recording due to a dispute with his former manager and producer Mike Appel.

How unnerving this turn of events must have been for Springsteen, having reached an early pinnacle only to have it threatened. It’s possible his musical direction would have changed after Born to Run anyway. But it’s easy to make the connections between the hard lessons he was learning and the tougher, more unforgiving material he was writing.

In his book Songs, Springsteen described his change of approach and how it related to what had transpired in his own life:

“I had a reaction to my own good fortune, and felt a sense of accountability to the people I’d grown up alongside. I wanted my characters to feel weathered, older, but not beaten. The sense of daily struggle in each song greatly increased. The possibility of transcendence or any sort of personal redemption felt a lot harder to come by.”

The dispute between Appel and Springsteen dragged on into 1977, until an agreement between the pair was reached. In no time at all, he had assembled the E Street Band to record. While their ability to deliver florid colors on Born to Run could easily been utilized again, “The Boss” instead tasked them with formulating a harder-rocking attack this time around. With Springsteen’s electric guitar leading the way, the album offers musical catharses the characters struggling within this batch of songs could only hope to achieve.

Straight into Darkness
Besides the sound, the other major change on Darkness on the Edge of Town came from Springsteen’s lyrics. He went for a more concise attack, trying to say more with less and reining in the wordy tendencies of his first three albums. It made sense, because the characters in these songs generally don’t have the means or willingness to articulate their feelings.

These characters have to work to make a living (“The Promised Land,” “Prove It All Night”), and we don’t mean by conducting shady deals with gangsters. Instead of hanging out with their friends, they deal with the stresses of family (“Factory,” “Adam Raised a Cain”). Even when these folks do indulge in some reckless extracurricular activity (“Racing in the Street,” the title track), they seem to crash into a figurative dead end when they try to return to domesticity.

Even on “Badlands,” as close as there is to an anthem on the record, the narrator can only make symbolically defiant gestures like spitting into the air. Many critics have mused the title track allows the album to end on a subtle air of positivity, because of how the narrator wrests back control of his life. But what kind of life? His wife has abandoned him, he’s broke, and he’s hanging out with others who have been dragged down by their secret, self-destructive desires.

Darkness on the Edge of Town sold well by the standards of regular artists, but not as well as Born to Run. You can also look at it as Springsteen finding whom in his audience wanted to follow him on his career-long artistic path, one that he couldn’t promise would be as pretty or operatic as his breakthrough. But it’s a path that resembled the course of real life, which is why those fans who stuck with him have been rewarded again and again with the relevance of his insight and profundity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *