Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 4: Darkness On The Edge Of Town

The hit album kicked off a transition period, wherein Bruce broke away from his manager, resulting in the first of many lengthy delays between albums. While the legal hassles may have kept him out of the recording studio, he did stay busy writing and performing, recording over three LPs’ worth of material. Of those, ten songs made it to Darkness On The Edge Of Town, an ode to the “workin’ man” framed by the shaky typewriter motif and the bedhead portraits the antithesis of glamour.
Bruce never released an album without painstakingly refining the arithmetic of each album’s side, and Darkness is framed with a similar formula to Born To Run. Each side begins with a potboiler, the first being “Badlands”. A natural anthem for radio, it’s got an incessant drumbeat, and we’re mostly surprised that it took until today for us to notice that the main musical motif is basically a major-key ripoff of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, and only because we read it on Wikipedia. His nastiest track to date follows, the downright ugly “Adam Raised A Cain”. Its simple riff brings to mind Tom Petty’s brand of “heartland” rock, a comparison sure to inspire cries of blasphemy. (The breakdown and restart in the middle is pretty cool, however.) Perhaps to bring things back to comfortable surroundings, “Something In The Night” pairs piano and glockenspiel for a good minute with some of those “WAH-HAW” yells from “Backstreets”. While familiar, to have such a slow song in the middle of the side threatens to shut everything down, but luckily “Candy’s Room” provides an edgy momentum in a portrait of teenage lust. It’s particularly welcome when the tempo slows again for “Racing In The Street”, notable for its detailed automotive description and liberal lifting from Martha & The Vandellas.
In case you’d fallen asleep, what used to be side two kicks in with “The Promised Land”, a defiant twin to “Badlands”. It’s a classically constructed rock ‘n roll song, with excellent color provided in the “blow away” repetitions in the third verse. That dirgey drumbeat returns for “Factory”, which could be a clever representation of the drudgery of blue-collar employment, but it seems a lot longer than its two minutes. “Streets Of Fire” is just as slow, but it’s punctuated by his strangulated delivery. (But without this song, would we live in a world without the film of the same name?) The questionable twang he employs on “Prove It All Night” is at least supported by an upbeat tune. The title track employs that same plodding tempo for the fifth forehead-slapping time, and finally gets the recipe right for an effective closer.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town isn’t a bad album, but we suspect that its overall sameness spurred the legend of the outtakes. (That, along with the rave reviews his mammoth live performances were getting.) It’s the vocals that ultimately hold back the album from classic status, no matter what Rolling Stone says. While he’d established a unique sound, he was also becoming a caricature, a New Jersey cowboy obsessed with cars, streets, the night and his strained relationship with his father. While that resonated with a sizable section of the American populace, not everybody can relate. Still, his lead guitar work stands out, particularly on “Badlands”, “Streets Of Fire” and “Candy’s Room”, where their economy equals the inventiveness.

Bruce Springsteen Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)—3

1 comment:

  1. I like your point about about Darkness on the Edge of Town solidifying Springsteen as a caricature. I have a few friends who shun everything he ever recorded after Darkness! While I agree he never lived up to the "next Dylan" hype he has carved out an interesting "Rock Star with social conscience" niche. I'm interested to get your thought on The River - its fun, but so nostalgic. Springsteen's more of preserver of rock and roll rather than an innovator.