With the release of Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen went from being a gravelly-voiced Jersey Boy wielding a guitar to a mainstream rock icon. Unfortunately, this level of success wasn’t quite the dream one would hope for. Springsteen had money problems and legal battles to face, forcing him to take a two-year break from recording. Once he got back in the studio, he and the band crafted Darkness on the Edge of Town, a less commercial album than Born to Run, though one with a stellar critical legacy. While this fourth album wasn’t made of chart-topping singles, the album was a consistently steady seller, remaining on the charts for 97 weeks and going triple platinum. The album is held in high regard by critics and fans alike and marks a significant, mature shift in Springsteen’s career.
Born to Run was all about the romanticized notion of escaping with the one you love, crafted with big production and even bigger sound. Darkness on the Edge of Town differs in its tone and outlook, drawing inspiration from blue collar warriors like the Animals, Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie, along with the anger and boundary-breaking music of The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Elvis Costello. The instrumentation is far leaner and less sweeping than that of Born to Run, creating a more somber, raw experience for the stories being told. All together, seventy songs were recorded in these sessions, with deep cuts made for anything that didn’t fit the theme. These tracks would later be found on Springsteen’s fifth album, The River, or recorded by other artists–for instance, Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” now a standard at Springsteen’s live shows.
Darkness on the Edge of Town paints a much less romanticized picture of his hometown than his earlier songs, drawing inspiration from his childhood, his parents’ hardships, and the grim experiences of his neighbors. “I began to ask myself some new questions. I felt accountable to the people I’d grown up alongside of and I needed to address that feeling…For my parents’ troubled lives I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge,” Springsteen recounts in his memoir Born to Run. The almost cheerful anger of album opener “Badlands” introduces this concept, relating the hardships and desires of a man down on his luck in a world where “Poor men want to be rich/Rich men want to be king/And a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.” The jarring hard rock track “Adam Raised a Cain” is one of his most autobiographical songs, calling back to his own complicated relationship with his father with bold biblical references. “The Promised Land” is simultaneously an homage to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and an ode to ditching illusions in favor of taking control of your reality.
The album certainly features hallmarks of Springsteen’s earlier works, painting pictures of blue collar America, specifically the responsibilities that can leave someone feeling trapped, longing for freedom, and of course, a deep love of cars. There was no giant aboutface in subject matter, leaving existing fans with plenty to love as Springsteen grew as a songwriter. Tracks like “Prove It All Night” was the same kind of sexy proposition that “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Thunder Road” were, if a bit less playful. Musically, the hotly debated “Candy’s Room” sounds like it could have slid onto Born to Run, though the lyrics about Candy’s darker reality land it firmly on Darkness.
It’s hard to talk about Darkness on the Edge of Town without “Racing in the Street.” Inspired by ‘60s artists like the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and the Animals, this somber piano ballad takes Springsteen’s escapist fantasy found on “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road” and gives it a dark, realistic twist. “Racing in the Street” is a tale of a man who finds himself with a dead-end job who finds solace in street racing. His girlfriend doesn’t share his penchant for courting danger leaving the two at an uncertain crossroads by the end. This deeper, more complex exploration earned “Racing in the Street” favorite status among critics over the years, as well as Springsteen himself.
Darkness on the Edge of Town closes with its eponymous track, a debate over whether it’s better to be in control over a small situation, or relinquish that control over staying connected to your community–a very personal struggle at that point in Springsteen’s life. “I would travel far, light-years from home, and enjoy it all, but I would never completely leave…By the end of Darkness, I’d found my adult voice,” Springsteen states in Born to Run. Ultimately, Darkness launched Springsteen’s dedication to politicizing his music in order to use his newfound platform as a force of good for those who have been forgotten. While the songs at times are grim, there’s a new kind of hope to be found in the music: rather than rely on grand romantic notions or great escapes, Darkness on the Edge of Town prefers to accept the hard realities of the world so they can be worked on or worked around. This maturation elevated Springsteen’s rising star even further, bringing him even closer to his fans and establishing his personal and political legacy as we know it today.