This month sees the 40th anniversary release of Bruce Springsteen’s monumental album “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978). Not only was it another hit album for the Boss but it proved a richer more mature Springsteen in both music and lyrics that added depth to his already acclaimed oeuvre.
Many of the songs were written during legal troubles with his former manager, Mike Appel, and the mood throughout is one of jaded weariness, reflecting a disenchantment with not only Springsteen’s personal life, but with his place in the music industry at large as a music superstar.
Springsteen’s star had been rising throughout the first decade or so of his career, and with it also his ambition. With the jittery, excited energy of The E Street Band he had cut a couple of albums leading up to the iconic “Born to Run” (1975), bagging his first top 40 U.S. hit with the title track in the process. The song and album were a dizzying mix of young love, dreams and the promise of escape.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town” brings things crashing down back to earth, and that attitude permeates the music. Characters in songs like “The Promised Land,” “Racing in the Street” and the title track are seeking a way out from their ordinary lives but find nowhere to go. They find solace in drag racing and women by night, in between their boring dead-end jobs by day. They’ve realized that they’re one of the broken heroes who have already tried and failed their last-chance power drive.
The famous album cover of Springsteen looking intently at the camera was shot by photographer Frank Stefanko with the intent of matching the mood of the album’s songs and the characters within. Springsteen later said of the photo session that produced the cover image: “When I saw the picture I said, ‘That’s the guy in the songs.’ I wanted the part of me that’s still that guy to be on the cover.” Stefanko added later that the cover photo “could have been a snapshot in somebody’s drawer.”
In turn, the accompanying music was a step down from the Phil Spector-inspired wall of sound and guitars that elevated “Born to Run.” The music still sounded big, but it instead of romanticizing the dreams of the young lovers it dramatized the yearning and emotion of the characters who were just a little bit older, and a little bit wiser.
Songs like “Something in the Night” and “Factory” are powerful not just for their big splashes of emotion in both music and vocal performance, but for painting very real and painful portraits of characters stuck with their wheels spinning.
Springsteen would delve deeper into these themes in his double album “The River” (1980) before hitting it big commercially with “Born in the U.S.A.” (1985). The albums surrounding it may have the bigger hits, but the unique pre-fame placement of “Darkness” in his discography along with a rawer, more direct approach that makes it one of his most personal albums definitely makes it worth seeking out.
Buy the album on vinyl via Lemonwire.com below: