A Troubled Genesis

Who on earth would want to be Springsteen in 1977? Sure, life did look good: after 14 months of recording sessions in ’74 – ’75, a monstrous hype among critics and radio stations for Springsteen’s upcoming album was fulfilled after its release in August ’75, going sextuple Platinum. Rolling Stone (the magazine) still ranks it 18th of All Time and Christgau’s Pazz and Jop poll in the Village Voice ranked it the 3rd best album of 1975. Finally, popular acclaim matched Springsteen’s critical following, and the sell-out Born to Run Tours lasted 210 shows, making The Boss (as he was dubbed by opponents in ‘New Jersey Monopoly Games’) a fast-rising star.

Yet behind the scenes, chaos reigned. Springsteen toured because he had to — Mike Appel, his previous manager, may have encouraged the early Springsteen sound and stuck by him when commercial prospects looked bleak, but the effort expended on Born to Run led to a break and a legal battle that kept him out of the studio. The stress from fame had hit Springsteen like a downbound train, causing him to spiral into depression: before the notorious Hammersmith Odeon show (given an entire page in Michael Palin’s diaries) Springsteen was ripping down posters around London. In Detroit’s March ’77 show, he didn’t want to get onstage for the first time in his life.

When the band returned to the studio, an increasingly depressed Springsteen, encouraged by Jon Landau (their new manager and early disciple), worked the band to the bone. During this period, Springsteen wrote 72 songs- 50 of which were recorded in 10 months of intense sessions.

Desperate to keep the thematic feel perfect, Springsteen pulled the plug of an early draft of the album, tentatively titled Badlands, in October ’77, opting instead for another 5 months of sessions. A perfect storm of obsession, legal troubles, stress, depression, and unspeakably high expectations from critics and fans alike made the position of the band unenviable, and yet somehow, they released the completed version of Darkness on the Edge of Town (Darkness) in June 1978.

The Finest Album

Critically, it paid off.

NME placed it as the best album of 1978 and Dave Marsh (the closest we have to a Springsteen academic) described the album as “nothing less than a breakthrough”, heralding it as the “threshold of a new period” in Rock.

Darkness is Springsteen at his finest. The Boss, as well as being a superlative performer, is a stunning poet, and this is shown off better than ever in Darkness, even though it was lyrically new territory.

Gone are the rapid fire and lyrically dense early songs like Blinded by the Light, Growing Up and Thunder Road: in Darkness, the songs are shorter, the word usage is spartan (no-one in Darkness flashes “guitars just like switchblades”), and the meaning is upfront and brutal. The stories in Darkness are simpler, with no big characters, no madcap stories, and none of the fast tongue-in-cheek comedy of Asbury Park and E Street: The poetry is anonymous and open ended, the stories are darker.

This is exemplified in the lyrics of Darkness on the Edge of Town: in 3 verses, The Boss lays out a life without much but a desire to improve. Similarly, in Adam Raised a Cain and Racing in the Street (to name a few examples), we are given snapshots- brief but filled with emotion- that express the themes and desires of entire lives.

It’s brutally effective: wherein other albums he heavily relies on the E Street Band as a crutch to support less adept lyrics, in Darkness, the poetry alone makes the point and the music accentuates it. In its anonymity and straight-facedness, it cuts straight to the core. Darkness works well as a book of poetry, with the fact it’s an album too is just a plus.

“Darkness works well as a book of poetry, with the fact it’s an album too is just a plus.”

But what a plus that is! Marsh described the E Street Band as “one of the finest Rock & Roll groups ever assembled”, and in Darkness, it’s collective peak but still a clear break from his youth. Before this album, Appel aimed for a “Symphonic Wall of Sound” feel: Born to Run is an opera, expansive and heavily produced, with a lot going on at the same time. The band is loose, and each musician pursues their own interpretation.

However, under the guidance of Landau and Van Zandt (fast becoming Springsteen’s’ right-hand man), the sessions for Darkness created a more coordinated and thematic sound, perhaps as a consequence of much more ensemble recording than before. Now, the sound is tight, and the band works collectively to support the undying energy in the songs, without overproduction or expansiveness.

Weinberg and Tallant become prominent, and van Zandt and Springsteen’s guitar becomes immensely aggressive. Bittain and Fredrico’s lines become less complex, but match the theme closer, while Clemons’ sax is used sparingly and powerfully. The songs start to feel much more claustrophobic, like you’re trapped with a monstrous amount of chained power ready to burst out of the speakers.

In songs like ‘Badlands’, the power comes from a fast-moving intrinsic energy to the backing, while in other pieces like ‘Streets of Fire’, it emerges through the Boss’ eclectic guitar. Springsteen’s voice is at his peak, and freed from the need to rap his lyrics, he can focus on putting immense energy and emotion in his vocalisation. He shouts, he hollers, he moans, he screams- but the underlying energy of the music and poetry makes it feel like he’s still limited by his physical form. He’s chained once more, and it adds to the feel perfectly.

“The underlying energy of the music and poetry makes it feel like he’s still limited by his physical form.”

All of these accentuate Springsteen’s thematic brilliance; unlike other albums, Darkness is constructed around a philosophy, with the musicianship and the lyricism constructed to support it. Every single A-side track has a matching (more optimistic) B-side with a similar subject and theme. The tight lyrics and caged-in, coordinated music match the overall philosophy of the album, accentuating the themes of desire with throbbing power. Although the album provides insights on Family, Faith, Abandonment, Lies and Despair, its fundamental theme is an existential message of endless hope, and choosing one’s own future. To quote Marsh, the entire album shows a “yearning for a perfect existence, of a life lived up to the hilt”.

Darkness teaches us to burst forth and make our dreams real, and not to give up until we’ve achieved not only our goals, but arrived in a “Promised Land” in which a great man believes in regardless of how desperate one’s position is. The greatest sin is defeatism: as is shown by Racing in the Street, Adam raised a Cain, and Factory, a failed life is to wallow in one’s despair, while what is to be exalted is trying to improve, even if one has absolutely nothing, illustrated clearest in The Promised Land, Badlands and Darkness.

Springsteen is telling us never to accept our issues or our settings, but instead to charge through them and burst into a better life, or fall down and try again. It’s not a polite message: he flat out tells one to “spit in the face of these Badlands”, to keep pushing for a better world regardless of the consequence. That philosophy and the careful thematic construction is part of the reason that Darkness is such a well-crafted and fascinating album in a time where many other albums don’t have such focus, or such an importantly hopeful message. The philosophy is echoed in later albums, but never at this intensity: later classics like Hungry Heart, Dancing in the Dark, and No Surrender all replicate it, but their albums and lyrics are diluted in a way that Darkness’s songs never really are.

This utter lyrical, musical, and thematic perfection makes Darkness one of those rare albums without a real weak link, like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Kind of Blue. Other albums have failings (even Born to Run has ‘Night’), but Darkness doesn’t: for all intents and purposes, it fits at least my description of a perfect album.