Darkness on the Edge of Town

from feature "The Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years"

(from Australian Rolling Stone October 1987 - issue 411)


It didn't have the overall impact of "Born to Run" or Born in the USA; it didn't contain any major hits; and when it was released, it didn't even sell as well as the decidedly uncommercial Nebraska. But for Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town was a pivotal album: on it he put aside both the multilayered sound and the mythic cityscapes of its predecessor, Born to Run and shortened his songs and toughened his outlook. Darkness was designed, Springsteen has said, to be relentless, and that's precisely what it is. Focusing intently on characters who struggle to retain some hope in the midst of situations that offer none, it was the album that pointed the way toward the Springsteen of today.

When he made the record, Springsteen was twenty-eight years old, and he had a lot to prove. Three years earlier he had made the covers of Time and Newsweek but the ensuing fuss had led some doubters to charge that CBS Records hype was responsible; then he was prevented from recording a follow-up album because of a bitter, lengthy lawsuit with his former manager.

When Springsteen finally went into the studio, he was in one of his most prolific periods. In these sessions he cut songs that other people wound up recording, songs that ended up on The River, songs that he had been performing live and songs that never surfaced legitimately. Because they didn't tell the story he wanted to tell, Springsteen never seriously considered using sure hits like "Fire" on the album. After months of juggling, he found the combination he was looking for; one of his last moves was to drop "The Promise" and replace it with the title track. "Darkness", "Badlands" and "The Promised Land" were grimly defiant assertions of faith, while "Racing in the Street" movingly acknowledged that hitting the road - long a favourite Springsteen image - may exact a heavy toll but in the end it's better than sitting at home and slowly dying.

"It's less romantic" Springsteen later told one reporter. "There's less of a sense of a free ride than there is in Born to Run. There's more of a sense of 'If you wanna ride, you're gonna pay. And you'd better keep riding'."

Afterward, Springsteen hit the road for his first full-scale arena tour, and he came back a star. It seems odd now to imagine a time when Bruce Springsteen had to prove he wasn't a hype - but there was such a time, and with Darkness on the Edge of Town and its subsequent tour, he proved it. All night, and then some.

Highest chart position: #5
Top Forty Single: "Prove It All Night" (#33)
Total U.S. Sales: 2.4 million

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