I have never been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. That said, there is always one musician or band that makes one brilliant album. For me this album is Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Made in 1978, Springsteen’s fourth studio album is a masterpiece and, as a body of work, one he has never bettered. Yes, he has written great songs since, but only the more recent Devils & Dust has captured the same brilliance on a single coherent consistent collection. The two albums share a common theme. Springsteen, in spite of his commercial success and world-wide fame, all his record sales, huge stadium gigs and god-like status, has always held a metaphorical torch for the ‘common’ man. It would be easy to say that he has never lost touch of his working class roots but this is a theme that is revisited time after time in his music. And a perfect example of this is Darkness On The Edge of Town.
Recently Springsteen has now released a new box-set and companion album: The Promise and, along with a documentary describing the way in which the album was conceived, nurtured, worked, reworked, argued and finally realised, we now get a fascinating insight into the years surrounding the making of the album, the tracks that never made it and the people involved. At the time Springsteen was in a legal battle with producer Mike Appel but his appetite for song writing and music did not waver. He continued to write song after song and The Promise shows the problem that he and The E Street Band faced. Only ten songs made it onto the final album and The Promise is over twenty, including some that became famous hits for other musicians.
During the making of this music, Springsteen described everyone who played key parts as producers. Even though Jon Landau is named as the sole producer on the album, with E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt as assistant, production is more than just sitting in the studio and saying what is working and what is not. It is taking part. It is decision-making, arguments, debates, late-night jam sessions, ideas, commitment and involvement. Maybe it is just American culture, most prevalent in television, that there should be six cast-members and eight hundred producers. However you read it, this is a great compliment to all involved. Credit is also due to Chuck Plotkin, at the time a recording engineer who was drafted in to mix Darkness On The Edge Of Town. He did an incredible job and the sound is balanced and controlled.
The reason I like Darkness On The Edge Of Town is because it is different from Springsteen’s other albums. This may sound odd but it often happens. Blood On The Tracks, for example, is the only Dylan album I really like. It captures exactly what Dylan was trying to achieve in music. On one album. Early in Springsteen’s career, and most notably on one of his best-known albums Born To Run, he strived for the ‘big’ sound. At the time of its release, Springsteen was already being mentioned in the same breath as Dylan. He is reported to have described his approach for the album as wanting to sound like Roy Orbison singing Dylan as produced by Phil Spector. He certainly achieved this in terms of sound and personnel involved. But for me, even though there are moments of brilliance (Thunder Road, Jungleland and Born To Run – the latter is an example of how to make a perfect four minute pop song), there is too much packed into the eight songs. Not that his spirit was missing; the message is just not clear. To sum it up, I like The Ghost Of Tom Joad more than The Rising – even though they are both perfectly fine albums. I’ll take the intimate close poetry of the aforementioned Devils & Dust over the anthemic rock of Born In The USA every time. On Darkness On The Edge Of Town, even the mighty Streets Of Fire is made to sound like a delicate piano and guitar ballad.
In the years that followed this initial success, Springsteen was becoming a proficient songwriter. When it came to put Darkness On The Edge Of Town together, there were plenty of arguments, not just about the songs that were on the album, but deciding what was left out. This, for me, is the album’s brilliance. There was a clear vision, and that was to ask more questions than give answers. As the documentary explains, and as knowledge and familiarity with the album shows, this is the sound of a man questioning the world around him and his very existence. And people have said there is a noticeable absence of love songs. Badlands, Racing In the Street, The Promised Land, Factory and Prove It All Night are all great love songs – as they show, love takes many forms. But they all question the fabric of life: Society, Friendship, Work, God and Obsession. Recurring themes fill the songs – night and dark, driving and racing, working and dreaming – this is small-town American life on the big stage. And even though Springsteen sings each in the first person he often pulls in abstract nameless enemies as the hero’s antagonists.
So what makes Darkness On The Edge Of Town amazing is further revealed on the companion album The Promise. In other words, what is not on the album. Famously the two big omissions are Because The Night and Fire (this is possibly where the ‘no love songs’ line came from, as these are two obvious tracks that fit the tag). The album’s name is taken from ‘the best Springsteen song never released’ which would have fitted in fine among the other songs – remember this was the days of vinyl and limited recording space. But the first thing you notice The Promise is that much of it is trying too hard to sound like Born To Run. The songs that do not made it onto Springsteen’s next album The River. This shows the breadth and depth of the music and creativity at the time.