Released in 1978, Darkness on the Edge of Town was Bruce Springsteen’s fourth studio album, and the first release following his breakthrough album Born to Run, an album that took him to levels of superstardom to the point that many critics declared him as being the savour of rock. However, Springsteen suffered somewhat from a three gap between releases as he was involved in a bitter dispute with his former manager for the rights and control of his music. This impacted on his new found momentum following Born to Run, meaning that “Darkness” in many ways was a make or break album for Springsteen and a record where he needed to prove that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan one album wonder.
Musically, Darkness is quite a step away from Born to Run and is not as full on in terms of its overall production and sound. Gone is the wall of sound style that was a constant on his previous album and in its place comes a sense of maturity I guess, musically, with Springsteen spending more time in the studio crafting songs and developing ideas instead of following rigid musical arrangements. Just one of the musical casualties from the Born to Run sound aside from the layered production, was the heavy sax presence of Clarence Clemons who definitely takes a backseat on this album, while the band as a whole are much tighter on here. This comes as no surprise as Springsteen himself has said subsequently how he wanted a leaner and less grand affair than Born to Run. The song-writing is also quite a departure from Born to Run and thematically looks more at Springsteen’s life growing up in small town America, while taking influence from his managerial struggles of the time. Many of the song titles reflect this sense of tension, while also portraying a sense of doom descending, with “Badlands”, “Streets of Fire” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” being just some examples of this. Springsteen was also so intent on keeping the overall thematic feel of the album and its essence intact to the point that many of the 70 odd songs he wrote and recorded around this time were left off the album as they did not fit in with the overall concept. Many of these songs would subsequently appear on future releases instead.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is full of standout tracks, starting with the anthemic opener “Badlands”, one of Springsteen’s most loved tracks and what he traditionally plays to start his concerts. Out of all the tracks on the album this one probably resembles the Born to Run sound the most with its chiming piano, pounding drums and a rare sax solo. The album then takes a slightly different turn on the following track “Adam Raised a Cain”, an aggressive raw guitar track which also has a punk attitude about it when compared with what was going on elsewhere musically at the time. This track is then followed by the quite emotional rock ballad “Something in the Night”, a beautiful song that begins with some soaring moans from Springsteen himself before transitioning into quite a powerful and reflective song. “The Promise Land” is a harmonica laden rock number that also has a thunderous sing-a-long chorus and a brilliant sax solo, while “Prove It All Night” is quite an interesting song musically, containing different things that jump out at you throughout like the slightly Asian sounding piano opening and the tracks subtle overall rock and roll dance feel. Finally, album closer “Darkness on the Edge of Town” pretty much sums up the album both lyrically and musically, as well as capturing the essence of its message. All of the musical elements seen on the album are pretty much at play on this song, while it also contains somewhat of a gospel feel in the vocals. A great track to end what is on the whole a great sounding album.
Darkness on the Edge of Town remains one of Springsteen’s most highly regarded albums and is even rated as high as 150 on Rolling Stone magazines top 500 albums of all-time list. Its enduring legacy is also seen through how it was re-issued as part of a box set titled “The Promise” in 2010, a very expansive and expensive set that also included an album made up some of the tracks left off the original album that had not been released, as well as an accompanying documentary which gave a very insightful look into the making of the album and Springsteen’s methods in the studio. In conclusion then, I would say that “Darkness” is a very honest record with a more focussed sound than seen on other Springsteen releases. It may lack the stylistic diversity of some of his other more seminal albums, but this is made up for by some solid song-writing as well as some interesting musical moments. This album definitely features in his top five and in many respects is an underrated late-70s rock classic.