26. Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town
If there’s a single album that defines who Bruce Springsteen is, especially to his most devoted fans, it’s probably Darkness on the Edge of Town. This is partially due to the way it deliberately leans on all of the New Jersey singer-songwriter’s most trusted imagery: dark, night, work, cars. And while I’m usually quicker to celebrate Born to Run as the pinnacle of The Boss in the nineteen-seventies, there are individuals songs and moments on here that are as good as anything he ever put on record. Despite all that, I think what really makes Darkness such a touchstone release is the epic backstory of its creation. It cemented the image of Springsteen as a monstrously prolific songwriter whose ruthless perfection kept most of his work from making it to the point where it could be accessed by dropping a needle (according to engineer Jimmy Iovine, Springsteen had over seventy songs to choose from, recording about two-third of them before whittling it town to the ten that made the final cut).
More crucially, the unintended three-year lag time between Springsteen’s breakthrough release, Born to Run, and Darkness established a useful narrative that maintained no matter how successful he was, there was always an underdog quality to him. Simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers be damned, if he could be hampered by persistently legal squabbles, then certainly selling over ten million copies of Born in the U.S.A. in its first eighteen months of release (by now, it’s over fifteen million) didn’t automatically strip him of his status as a working class hero. Even if only subconsciously, the travails on the pathway to Darkness perpetuate the image of Springsteen as unfairly beset by the bullying power structure as the figures in his songs.
Of course, all this modern myth-making wouldn’t mean much if the album wasn’t also damn good, a sure-headed strengthening of Springsteen’s already admired songwriting skills and ability to carry forward what came across as a pure spirit of rock ‘n’ roll earnestness and abandon. His personal cars-and-girls milieu was established enough that his subversions of the romanticism of it all–laced throughout the album, but delivered with the most directness and impact on “Racing in the Street”–gave the album a welcome weightiness. Springsteen undoubtedly believed in the power of rock ‘n’ roll, but Darkness is a prolonged acknowledgment that “pullin’ out of here to win” may not be the solution after all. There are dead end streets everywhere.
Opening with “Badlands,” the album is explosive and anguished from the very beginning (“Let the broken heart stand as the price you gotta pay”). Springsteen’s previous sentimentality and wistfulness has been largely replaced with anger and regret, undoubtedly informed by those legal struggles. Though his songwriting can occasionally be didactic (“Factory” is a working man reportage with no soul to it), more often he’s exposing the raw emotions that his protagonists are too weary and downtrodden to express. There’s a reason fists raised in appreciative solidarity are a common sight during Springsteen’s onstage marathons with the E Street Band. He takes the creaking existence and battered dreams of the majority of the U.S. citizenry and transforms them into beautifully blunt poetry. On Darkness, he couples that with muscular music that bears the studio polish he long preferred, though tempered by a slightly rougher take on his signature sound. At its best, the album does have some of the famed urgency of the live shows. On “Candy’s Room,” when the song starts roaring forward after its squalling, slightly psychedelic midpoint interlude, it’s an uncommon wonder, the sort of blast of reckless musical joy that could only come from a guy who believed the key to universe might be found in the engine of an old parked, but was damn sure it existed within guitar chords played with passion.