Top of the Pops: Darkness on the Edge of Town

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August 13, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

People Love Bruce Springsteen because they think he still spends every summer working at his dad’s car wash”

-Chuck Klosterman

Why do people love Bruce Springsteen?  And when I mean love I literally mean love, to the point of sycophantic obsession.  But, it’s a sincere love, as if he were a champion who is representing all of his fans.  The bulk of Springsteen fans are made up of middle age women and by default their children as well.  My mother is one of these women, and for my entire life I grew up on Bruce Springsteen.  However I never got the hype around him, and why people talk about him like he’s their best friend.  It wasn’t until I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town that I finally understood, at least in some small part, why people love Springsteen differently then they love other solo artists like Billy Joel or Elton John.

Darkness is the album that made Bruce Springsteen Bruce Springsteen, and not another blue collar rock star.  The album, aptly titled as it is, is the sum totality of everything Bruce Springsteen was at that time.  Having undergone numerous legal battles with his former manager, and the stressful fallout of the unexpected success of Born to Run, led Springsteen to divert from upbeat tempos, rapid fire and carefree lyrics, stories about made up people.  Instead, on Darkness, the follow up to Born to Run, Springsteen wrote somber, more personal lyrics, which led to a raw, more emotive passion than we’d ever seen from Springsteen.

Darkness, is the antithesis of Born to Run in every way imaginable.  The album titles stand in blatant contrast to one another as Born implies a sense of emergence, an energy, a sense of breaking free.  Darkness, perfectly captures a sense of ominous doom on the horizon, but it’s a doom that isn’t aggressive, but instead passive and subtle.  The album covers further highlight this dichotomy; where in Born Springsteen is laughing hanging off his friend’s shoulder, the cover to Darkness introduces us to a loner Springsteen with that playful grin wiped off his face.  He’s alone, introverted, and unsure of himself, in short, he’s a Springsteen that we’d never seen before.  No doubt, Darkness would prove to be an album we hadn’t heard from Springsteen either.

Ironically enough Darkness opens up with the track “Badlands”, a song about trying to get out of these badlands with “the love that you gave me”.  The love, hope, and faith proves all the sustenance he needs and fuels him to “pray that someday it may raise me above these badlands”.  The opening track contradicts the overall motif of the album with its sense of idealism and optimism, but in the badlands all we’ve got is hope to get us through the days in the fields.

The next track “Adam Raised a Cain” opens up with an amazing and gritty guitar segues guided by a brooding but smart piano melody.  Without a doubt the most aggressive and raw cut on the album, “Adam Raised a Cain”, like the track preceding it talks about the roughness of blue collar life and how his father’s fate of work and toil will inevitably befall him.  The clincher comes at the end when he completely loses it and starts to sing in an inaudible voice; by that point you know this album is something special.  Even when listening to the song thirty years later, his unabashed energy and raspy voice makes you forget that he is a multimillionaire.  Based on that fact alone, “Adam Raised a Cain” sums up in a nutshell why people adore and love Springsteen.  Not only does he tell stories in his lyrics, but he brings them to life through his emotions and his belief in what he’s saying.  If nothing else, all you need to know about Springsteen, is that whether or not he’s right, at the very least you know that he believes in what he’s saying.

“Something in the Night” introduces us to the grunting and heaving that has become Springsteen’s trademark.  The song is probably the most autobiographical on the album because of lines like “You’re born with nothing and better off that way, soon as you’ve got something they send someone to try and take it away” convey that Springsteen is nothing more than a regular guy who just happened to hit it big.  He’s saying that there’s nothing special about him, but his circumstance of fame comes with a price that might not be worth it.

Side one closes out a bit anticlimactically with “Candy’s Room” a song that would have fit much better on Born to Run, and “Racing in the Streets” a song that kills all the momentum and energy and rawness of the first three tracks that made the album so thrilling to begin with.  Not to worry though side two of Darkness on the Edge of Town elevates the album to a new and unimaginable height.  The second side of Darkness is without a doubt one of the greatest sides of any rock album that will ever exist.

Side two emphatically opens with “The Promised Land” which for all intents and purposes is Springsteen’s coming of age song.  He is announcing himself free of his previous burdens and ready to take control of the next of his life.  The lyric that most aptly conveys this is the line “Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man”.  Gone is the hopeless and downtrodden fledgling, and in his place is a self assured man who sees “There’s a dark cloud rising on the desert floor I’ve packed my bags and I’m headed straight through the storm”.  An upbeat song that thrives off its drum work and piano driven melody, “The Promised Land” like “Badlands” admits that things may not be great now, but stresses the importance of overcoming adversity and retaining resiliencies.

“Factory” is a track that reinforces something we’ve known from the very beginning, and it’s that Springsteen is a blue collar guy who doesn’t know that much about lavishness.  For people like him this is the track that shows that he is one of their own.  It’s a simple song with basic guitar and drums that talks of the soul sucking nature of arduous hard labor.

“Streets of Fire”, is probably the song that taught Bono how to sing.  Springsteen shifts between a lazy meandering tone to a scratchy bellowing that presents all the emotion to the song.  Sonically, the song transitions constantly between soft verses and over the top chorus that give the song an extra kick to it.

The penultimate track of the album “Prove it all Night” also proves to be its most romantic.  In a sea of grim despair and surrendered optimism, “Prove it all Night” takes a step back and examines a youthful and optimistic romance between two young people.  He can’t buy her a “gold ring, or a pretty dress of blue” but all they can do is spend the night together so he can prove his love to her all night long.  In spite of his hard work and those around her telling her not to see him, they still want their love to flourish.  The track gives us everything we love about his music and more.  We get a pretty piano melody, a sincere but raw guitar solo, a sax solo, and gratuitous grunting from Springsteen himself.  In keeping with the context of the album, “Prove it all Night” is the light that hovers just past the darkness on the edge of town.

Finally comes the title track, and quite honestly if any song was worthy of being the title track it’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town”.  This is what the album’s about, everything about the album can be summed up by the title track, hell, the three years it took making the album can be summed up in the title track.  Working its way up from a repeating piano melody, Springsteen cuts loose on different stories of people who linger on the darkness on the edge of town.  These are people who are loveless, lonely, broken, and overtaken by the darkness on the edge of town.  Once again, this is a song rife with grunting, shouting, and explosive piano work, in short everything that makes the album a masterpiece.

What is the darkness on the edge of town?  It’s a darkness that gnaws away at you, a permanent discomfort that doesn’t cause pain, but doesn’t go away either.  The album could end no other way but with a subtle fade into darkness.  The album, like the intangible but ever present darkness occluding the album is dark but not overbearing; it’s a shadow not a threat, a malaise not a depression.

People love Bruce Springsteen because they not only understand what he’s saying, they feel what he’s saying.  Every fan of his has that one song that is theirs, that no matter what, they believe he wrote for them specifically in mind.  Born to Run and Born in the USA are the reasons why the mainstream loves Springsteen, but Darkness on the Edge of Town, is why Bruce Springsteen fans love Bruce Springsteen.

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