Least to Most: Bruce – Darkness on the Edge of Town

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these… BADLANDS!”

Here we go then; my favourite and most-played Bruce Springsteen album and likely up there as a favourite album full stop, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The history surrounding Born To Run‘s follow up is well covered: following internal conflicts and examining of contracts, Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel entered a legal battle that would prevent Bruce from recording any new material until its resolution in May 1977. It’s a strange one to consider given how successful Born To Run had become but, after the protracted break from recording, Springsteen found himself in a make-or-break situation for the second time in a row. He now needed to prove that a) he still had it and b) Born To Run wasn’t a fluke and, for the record company too, that he was a viable artist.

When he did hit the studio, Springsteen was overflowing with ideas and songs and the sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town marked the first of many protracted recording periods where more songs would be recorded than released – as proven by the wealth of strong material left off the album and included on Tracks and The Promise. I could just as easily play ‘best non-album Darkness track’ to ‘best Darkness track’ such is the quality of the cut songs.

Acknowledging that the “music that got left behind was substantial”, Springsteen has said that ““Darkness was my ‘samurai’ record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble.” In order to filter through the thirty plus songs – in a recorded and ready state, not to mention those in other stages – numerous ‘track listings’ and sequences were plotted* before the final selection and sequence was made ready for release in June 1978**.

As the now-released tracks show, the recording sessions found Bruce running through almost every conceivable structure – from gorgeous pop songs to old school R&B. When it came time to the crunch, though, the excess was cut, the songs were honed down to their essentials and the arrangements tight*** – a vast contrast to the Wall of Sound employed for Born To Run – with the songs recorded by the full E Street Band, tight and honed after touring since 1975, at once. Steve Van Zandt would earn a co-producer credit for helping Bruce tighten the arrangements.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s best guitar album. Whereas Born To Run was written mostly at the piano, Darkness is clearly a six-string job and sees a return for those chops that had started to get space on The Wild, The Innocent… before being lost in the mix. Check out every live version of ‘Prove It All Night’ or the angst-driven ‘Adam Raised a Cain‘ or ‘Candy’s Room’:

Yes, the songs on Darkness are more serious – Springsteen, flush from Born To Run‘s success having returned home to find those he grew up with struggling with the blue-collar life he’d escaped had also weathered a lengthy and unpleasant lawsuit having realised that the wool had been pulled over his eyes- but they’re very well written and is perhaps the best example of his marrying the rousing (‘Badlands’) with the minimal (‘Factory’). Oh, and it also contains what I consider his finest lyrics on his finest song: “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece”:

There’s a lot of fun on the album, too. I reckon if you get to a Springsteen show and they pull out a  rave-up on ‘Prove It All Night’ then nobody will be heading to grab a beer, they’ll be there singing along:

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s first album of maturity. It takes in and refines  everywhere he’d been and serves as a signpost for everything he’d go on to record later.

An album of defiance in the face of struggle that cracks along with an urgency and taut electricity. It’s my favourite Springsteen album and brings this Least to Most exploration of Bruce to an end.

*A look through the (very much worth investment) box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story will show just how many.

**Recording sessions were finished early January ’78 with mixing dragging on until late March with a number of mixes being toyed with and one (‘The Promised Land’) being changed as late as April.

***For evidence see the difference between Darkness‘ ‘Racing in the Street’ and ‘Candy’s Room’ vs ‘Racing in the Street (’78)’ and ‘Candy’s Boy’ from The Promise.

8 thoughts on “Least to Most: Bruce – Darkness on the Edge of Town

  1. It’s my favourite Springsteen album too, but at same time I do think he lost something by continuing with the stripped down sound with the rest of his career. He often stuck to three chord songs after this, and there weren’t big, expansive epics like ‘Jungleland’ and ‘Lost In The Flood’,

    Great series!

    • Thanks!
      Yeah I think that while he certainly played some bigger songs (Point Blank always comes to mind), from this point in he certainly kept his narrative focus on relatable vs the fantastical / romantic of old. Then again if you’ve written a trilogy of epics like Lost in the Flood, NYC Serenade and Jungleland…. can you really top it? If you try you end up with Outlaw Pete…

  2. Ok, so I’m just wrapping up listening to the album, (“Prove it All Night” playing.) This came out in 1978 and I was wondering what I was listening to back then and why this wasn’t higher on my playlist. And in going back to look at the charts from then, seems like – at least album-wise – I was focused on two things – New Wave and, of course, blues. New Wave in the form of Talking Heads, Police, Elvis Costello and blues in the form of Muddy Waters and George Thorogood. And of course, some Clash.

    So is everything I just said mutually exclusive of this album? Of course not. But I think by then while I was still very much into Bruce, I was just being pulled in other directions. And one of the problems was that Bruce got so serious on this album. The songs are good, I thought, but where’s the fun? See, I ain’t here on business baby, I’m only here for fun.

    But like “The River,” which I revisited pre-last year’s tour, I listened to it again and enjoyed it quite a bit. There’s a couple of songs like “Factory” and “Something in the Night”: that don’t do much for me. My God, put one of those outtakes on here. Fire! Whatever.

    But as you mentioned back when you hit the cream of the crop albums, we’re talking about a bunch of great records for which one could, in a sense, flip a coin. So bottom line is this album would make my Top Ten, not Top Five. Which if I may indulge, I’d like to share on a subsequent post.

    Anyway, job well done. Pip-pip and what ho 😀 Hell of a feat to go through all these. Glad I came along for the ride.

    • Thanks Jim. Yeah, quite the feat but a lot of fun and a fair few rediscovered gems that now pop up for frequent listen. Not sure I’d do it again… while there’s a few artists I could apply the Least to Most concept to I don’t think I’d go the post-per-album route next time.
      Factory… yeah that’s the only track I don’t fall head over heals for and would gladly swap it for The Iceman or Come On (Let’s Go Out Tonight) from The Promise which shares its melody. Something in the Night, though, I do enjoy.
      Look forward to your Top 5 and I reckon I know what’ll be at Number 1.

      • Well, glad you did it. Got me to travel down some Boss pathways I haven’t thought about for a while. I think for me especially, listening to ‘Tracks’ again was a revelation. Anyway, Top Five coming up.

  3. The Music Enthusiast’s Top Five Bruce Springsteen albums. {drum roll please}:

    5. The River – I hadn’t listened to it in quite some time and wasn’t necessarily a big fan on release. This was my “moving away from Bruce” period. I listened to it again prior to the “River” tour and realized how good it was. Then I went to the show and he almost completely abandoned the album. Anyway “The Ties that Bind” album is on my XMAS wish list.
    4. Tracks – Hey, you opened the door to a compilation album being a regular Bruce album. So I am jumping in with both feet. I am just going to put this in my car along with the other 8,000 CD’s that are in there and boogie.
    3. Born in the USA – So much good stuff. Doesn’t even bother me in the least that it may be ’80’s overproduced.
    2. Born to Run – See: Your Own Review
    1. The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle – What can I say? Bluesy, jazzy, funky, joyous romantic. I think that your mental image of an artist depends on where you jumped on the train. This is where I jumped on. And so if you realize that versus, say, ‘Darkness,’ you can see me saying ‘Wha?’

    If ‘Tracks’ didn’t exist or the judges disallowed it, then swap in ‘Greetings; “Blinded,” “Spirit in the Night,” “Growin’ Up,” “For You,” “Saint.” Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me?

    There it is.

  4. This album is very good and one of CB’s all time favorite albums period. I got hooked back when he released ‘Wild Innocent’, which led to ‘Greetings’. Eagerly awaited ‘Born to Run’ and then had to wait forever for this one. It did not disappoint. Seen him when he toured it (3000 seat venue). Probably the best rock n roll show I ever saw. You hit the nail on the head when you said “Angry”. He played with a vengeance and strangled every note out of his guitar, voice and band. My ears rang for days. He opened with Badlands and didn’t let up. I’ll be putting my spin on it sometime soon. Good choice and you’re speaking to the converted.

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