I finally watched The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town on HBO, and was reminded anew how much I love Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album. This is a discovery I seem to make periodically: the last time was in 2003, when I reviewed the record in Rolling Stone (as part of the “Rolling Stone Hall of Fame,” which occupied a slot in the reviews section for about five years and provided an opportunity to reconsider neglected classics or revisit past favorites, even when they hadn’t been reissued).
Since it’s the season of Darkness, with the megabox coming out, I thought I’d pull out that five-star review:
Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
For his fourth record, Bruce Springsteen cut off his beard–and also shaved the shaggy romantic epics of Born to Run. What emerged were ten taut rock songs about people crushed by family, by lust, by living in this world every day. “When I made this particular album, I just had a specific thing in mind,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1978. “It had to be just a relentless… barrage.” (He was so focused on the theme of living with broken dreams, he left off “Fire” and “Because the Night,” which became hit singles for the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith, respectively.) Despite its lyrical weight and dour title, Darkness on the Edge of Town is not a bleak record. Its characters are groping towards redemption: “I believe in the hope that can save me,” Springsteen sings on “Badlands.” The narrator of “Racing in the Street” may never find the absolution he seeks by winning small-time drag races, but his vision of a better life is what keeps him driving and keeps him alive.
The album isn’t punk–Springsteen got a shave, not a mohawk–but it’s colored by the raw sound happening in rock at the time. The E Street Band members play each four-minute anthem like it’s their last chance to make music before their hands get cut off. Max Weinberg drums with particular passion, anchoring the record that stands as the E Street’s best.
More than half the songs make some reference to driving, from streets of fire to the dusty road from Monroe to Angeline. But while Bob Dylan had Highway 61 and AC/DC had a highway to hell, Springsteen knew that the highway went everywhere: heaven, hell, and the world men make for themselves.
(By Gavin Edwards. Originally published in Rolling Stone 918 (March 20, 2003).)