Darkness on the Edge of Town

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).)

posted 20 October 2010 in Reviews and tagged , . 8 comments

8 Comments on Darkness on the Edge of Town

  1. Chris M. Says:

    One of your best pieces of writing (which, I think, is saying something). And I miss that Hall of Fame page in the magazine.

  2. Gavin Says:

    Wow, thanks.

    I miss the HOF page too–I always had a lot of fun writing it. I think I’ll pull out some of my other entries.

    Stray thought: one of the things I loved about the Promise doc was the way it not only enriched my enjoyment of the best songs on the album (“Racing in the Street”), but the worst ones (“Factory”).

  3. Rob Says:

    great piece, Gavin. this one’s my favorite too. it was around this time last year I saw him do “Darkness” all the way through at Giants Stadium and I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t use “Factory” as the bathroom-break song.

    where do you stand on “Streets of Fire”?

  4. Rob Says:

    something weird I always notice about people born in the 80s and 90s:

    1. they all love Springsteen and they don’t have ANY of that “embarrassed about liking Springsteen” thing that people born in the 60s and 70s used to have


    2. they think of the whole “Born in the USA” album the way Bowie fans think about Tin Machine. Blows my mind.

  5. Gavin Says:

    #2 is crazy! I don’t even know what to make of it.

  6. Jaybird Says:

    Side two of the album was/is (to me) the perfect side.

  7. Gavin Says:

    Really? I think side one’s much better.

    To answer Rob’s earlier question: I like “Streets of Fire,” but it’s probably one of the songs you’d take off if you were resequencing the album to include “The Promise” and “Because the Night.”

    Although if you added “Because the Night,” you’d have three songs with “Night” in the title, which might have been excessive.

  8. rosemary Says:

    Just to nitpick, the line is “I believe in the faith that can save me / I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me”

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