“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.