The broken balance of Darkness on the Edge of Town

Darkness on the Edge of TownRealizing that I hadn’t done one of my Favourite Albums writeups in a while, and also realizing that I wanted to do one about Springsteen, I hit a wall: how on earth do I choose a single Springsteen album to write about?

My problem is that Springsteen’s catalogue runs the gamete of moods and themes – far more diverse than his critics give him credit for – and my favourite Springsteen album at any given point largely depends on my mood. If I’m feeling hopeful and escapist, I’d probably say Born to Run. If I’m feeling moody and pessimistic, I’d probably say Nebraska.

I bet the majority of the time, though, I’d say Darkness on the Edge of Town. I’m not really sure if it’s his best album – I’d probably go with the other two I mentioned if I were going for flat-out quality – but it’s the one where the two different sides of Springsteen co-exist and conflict with one another, making it possibly the most complex and interesting album of his long and storied career.

What I love about Springsteen’s characters is that their urgency, patently delivered with the Boss’ raspy, edgy voice. In his best work, Springsteen’s characters are teetering on the brink, hanging onto the edge of a cliff and at the climatic point where they’ve either going to pull themselves back up or resign themselves to the forces of gravity. You can pretty much slot most of Springsteen’s most iconic work into one of these two categories: ones where his characters heroically escape their circumstances (“Born to Run,” “Thunder Road”) or succumb to them (“The River,” pretty much all of Nebraska).

But it’s hard to slot Darkness on the Edge of Town into these simplistic categories. Sure the album starts off optimistically enough with “Badlands,” but after that comes “Adam Raised a Cain,” which changes the whole ball game. It’s Springsteen’s first foray into pondering fathers and sons (a theme that would continue throughout much of his subsequent work), and the content here – anger and race running through generations – is dark and distressing, matched with some of the most grating and off-putting guitar work that Springsteen has ever done (almost Neil Young in its aesthetics). It’s followed by “Something in the Night,” which begins like a sequel to the pedal-to-the-metal escapism of “Thunder Road’ but ends in flames and heartache.

Sure, the romanticism that defines Springsteen for many still pokes up here and there on the album, in songs like “The Promised Land” and “Prove it All Night,” but it seems tainted, open to the possibility that the hopes of escape and salvation might go completely and utterly unfulfilled. And the album’s concluding title track seems to confirm this, where the protagonist comes to the conclusion that the glory and success they seek can only be found if they give into the darkness within their soul. It’s a theme Springsteen had explored before this – even Born to Run includes “Meeting Across the River” – but never in such vivid terms, and never at the penultimate point of an album.

But perhaps my main reason for championing Darkness on the Edge of Town is that it includes my absolute, unquestionable, 100 percent favourite Springsteen song, “Racing in the Street,” in my humble opinion one of the most beautiful little songs that has ever crossed my eardrums. Considering how noted Born to Run was for its dense wall of sound, here Springsteen brilliantly keeps the result as minimalist as possible, with most of the song holding together over an understated-but-powerful piano part. The result is dark, haunting and beautiful.

The refrain plays off of words made famous by Martha and the Vandellas and the Rolling Stones, but it’s hardly played for fun. The first half of the lyric could be paired with a more optimistic song and we’d be none the wiser, but putting it against one of the saddest pieces of music the Boss ever composed makes sense when the final verse hits and hits hard: “Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea / and wash these sins off our hands.” The pairing of such faint hope against a lonely piano epitomizes the brilliant contradiction of Darkness on the Edge of Town – championing salvation while questioning whether or not it’s even possible in these times.

Watch: Bruce Springsteen – “Racing in the Street” live in 1978 (note: the video here is really old and the picture quality only so-so – it’s dark for the first several minutes – but the sound quality and the performance are stunning):

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