Coming, as this album does, after a three year break during which Bruce had been written off as ‘yesterday’s man’, you would expect some difference between Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town but the differences are major and they served as a sharp signal of where future Springsteen material would go. Gone are the romantic ideas of “getting to that place where we wanna go” and walking in the sun. In there place a harsher, more realistic tone. We are left in no doubt that running away is not the answer. The characters on Darkness are staying in town and working through their own personal darkness.The pounding opening of Badlands shows that far from the symphony of sound on previous releases, this collection would pound with raw emotion and sting with Springsteen’s unleashed power. The guitars bleed with a direct sound and the message is clear that “I pray that someday it may raise me above these Bad Lands”. The guitar work on this track and throughout the album is some of Springsteen’s best to date. “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” and on this evidence we can believe it. Springsteen’s guitar whistles through the opening to Adam Raised A Cain and on this track he has the scorching vocal to compliment the stark production. He moves effortlessly from the gentle vocal of the verses to a throat-ripping chorus. And then, Springsteen strangles his guitar some more for good measure. The drums and other instrumentation does not change throughout this song, that allows the song to really make an impact. The character tells how his “Daddy worked his whole life, for nothing but the pain” and it will become clear on the rest of the tracks that despite the hard life of Springsteen’s characters, they still have pride, a pride in work that in most cases kills the people that they become.
Something In The Night is a reminder of the little piece of freedom, whatever it may be, for the people. We are told that the radio gets turned up “So I don’t have to think”. They have freedom, however small; they have ‘something’ to grip hold of. Cars are usually the freedom they have. The most impressive element of this song, narrative detail aside, is the double-tracked chorus, which in my opinion is neither beautiful nor is it bad, it is bittersweet. On some albums, Springsteen’s vocal ability does not get the credit due to it, but here the effect works well. One feels that double-tracked vocals are the only hint of lavish production that Springsteen has allowed himself on this entire album. Candy’s Room draws the listener in to a track that seems gentle with a spoken introduction and nice piano, the drums set the pace of an express train, quiet in the distance, then to stun you into life the drums pound and the guitars build in the background to a nicely worked solo and an understated ending. Racing In The Street is a truly heartbreaking tale, helped in no small way with a beautifully simple piano track and a solo Springsteen vocal that echoes to every inch of your senses. “Some guys they just give up living…some guys come home from work…and go racing in the street.” This track single-handedly manages to be both an exhilarating ode to the freedom of car racing and another anchor to the harsh realities of life. The uplifting chorus is replaced by the lonely verses – one can’t help but note the background vocals accompanying the last verse, sounding somewhat funereal. Then, of course we have the long fading sequence of just the piano, keyboards and the gentle reminder of a drumbeat. Sheer class! It could go on forever…
The Promised Land is written proof of the newly emerged Springsteen, grown from the ideals of love and happiness and the myth that life is all fun. The character is driven to find a happiness that is rooted in the real everyday life, because as he reminds us “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man!” And he STILL believes in the Promised Land. The character works all day, drives all night and dreams of taking a moment into his hands, HIS moment to shine. I think this song is the victory call of the working man. The man that works his whole life for nothing but pain (Adam Raised A Cain), the man that has seen his life sucked from him by his work (Factory) and the man that just doesn’t give a damn (Badlands), a reminder that a man can still be fulfilled and can fight back to claim his own ‘one moment’. There are uplifting moments in this track, moments where the E Streeters really do find their own ‘moments’ – Clarence’s saxophone solo, Bruce’s harmonica and the work of Federici and Bittan. For most of the album the piano has been plodding through with beautiful, yet sad melodies, and on this track you can hear some very happy notes from that direction!
As if to bring us back down to earth with a bump, Factory comes in with what sounds like a slightly off-key first note. The drum keeps a monotonous beat, which is only broken by the sounds of some nice work on the piano and organ. Once we are introduced to the “Daddy” of the story and his routine, the song ends. A brief look into the monotonous and soul-destroying day in the life of a factory worker, a factory which both gives the character life, while all the time slowly taking it away.
On Streets Of Fire the bare introduction of one voice and a trace of organ soon give way to a blistering drum, pounding through the darkness as Springsteen stings with a his direct tone and low down, raw guitar solo. All the instrumentation comes together and manages not to overlap but instead compliment the heartbreaking vocal which both screams with a roughness and howls with melody. Then to the final songs of the Darkness experience, Prove It All Night with the skilful combination of all that is good about E Street – Clarence, Roy, Max and Bruce all have chances to show what they can do and the result is a blistering competition between Clarence’s soulful sax and Bruce’s full bodied guitar. A fitting precursor to the title track, which sounds purposefully stripped of any interfering instrumentation for the first few seconds, as only the drum, bass and piano play that familiar sequence. As Bruce breaks into more wrenching vocals on the chorus, so does the band and then we are returned to the stark piano for the verses. The song is the antithesis of the production on Born To Run, it is stripped down, emotional and raw, in keeping with the tone of the whole album.
On first listen the stark emptiness of Darkness On The Edge Of Town might not sit comfortably with some. The vocals could at times be criticised for being unclear and perhaps over sang, but on the other hand the raw energy that Springsteen has when he roars the lyrics, cannot be denied. This is a very clear, direct album where the guitars scream, the drums pound and the whole thing hits you with a force that makes a powerful impression. The tone may be more downbeat than anything signalled on previous recordings but it is a true and honest picture of Bruce Springsteen at is musical best. Life is not all sunsets, guitar bands and circuses. Life is hard work and there is some satisfaction that comes with the knowledge that a hard day’s work is over and the job is done. The days of heady-idealism may be gone for the characters on this album, but in their daily lives they are both tragic and heroic. The characters are living their lives and surviving to not only tell the tale (as many of them do here, through Springsteen) but they also insist that there remains a light at the end of a tunnel that is shrouded in darkness.
© Simon A. Moult / Moultymedia 2006.
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