After his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run, rock's new savior waited three years to deliver the bleak, blunt, brilliant Darkness on the Edge of Town. (The Promise - Thom Zinny's new documentary about the album's making - airs on HBO this week.) Mitchell Cohen gave his verdict on the album in Creem in September 1978...-- Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
This ain't salvation. This ain't betrayal. Darkness On The Edge Of Town is an artful, passionate, rigorous record that walks a slender line between defeat and defiance, and if it had considerably more of the go-for-broke recklessness that it celebrates, it might have also been a great record.
But if frustration is its subject - the walled-up sensation that pounds at your gut, the daytime monotony that leads to nighttime explosion - it's also its essence, its soul.
The best of this music - "Badlands," "Streets Of Fire" - doesn't just describe the rage, it embodies it, and becomes apocalyptic sentimentality, the hero of these little dramas like a film noir fugitive (Dane Clark in Moonrise, Farley Granger in They Live By Night). Then the album is about as powerful as rock'n'roll gets. As often, however, the songs sound mannered, overly solipsistic, and so serious. Doesn't this guy ever get in the car just to go get a pack of cigarettes? It's a major production every time he turns the ignition key.
There are no jokes on Darkness On The Edge Of Town - no intentional ones, anyway - and Bruce Springsteen really used to be quite the rock-comic (maybe it was all those months in the studio that squelched his sense of humor). "For You," "Kitty's Back," "Sandy," "Rosalita," and "Thunder Road" all have impish one-liners, or musical insolence, or a quizzical reading, something to lighten up the proceedings, and I'd trade all seven minutes of "Racing In The Street," including Roy Bittan's admirable piano work, for one moment of the spontaneity with which Bruce shouts "Come on, Wendy!" like some hoodlum Peter Pan on "Born To Run."
The album seems less populated than his others, less vividly atmospheric, and the emphasis on father-son conflict and Catholic checks-and-balances make Springsteen too much a James Dean character as seen by Martin Scorsese. In other words, the LP isn't much fun. On stage he mixes up his mythic masculinity with the pure, slightly intimidated love/lust of "A Fine, Fine Girl" and "Pretty Flamingo" and party-time rousers like "Quarter To Three" and "You Can't Sit Down," so the question is why he doesn't put those moods, if not those songs, on disc.
("Aw, 'fess up," says the voice of emotion, overruling, the voice of reason. "When The Girl wheeled out of the room, blasting you away, you put on 'The Promised Land' for the first time and wept through the rest of the side. This is, you gotta admit, moving stuff. Springsteen does have that feel for what it's like to drown in disappointment and to want something so intensely...")
Well; yeah. These are very sensitive buttons he's pushing, calling on a twister to "Blow away the dreams that tear you apart/Blow away the dreams that break your, heart." When he sings "Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul/I want control right now," or bitterly puts his life on the line on the title track, or mines his durable grab-the-girl-and-split story into an infectious piece of machinery called "Prove It All Night," Springsteen is at the top of his game, taking wild swings and connecting. He has his themes, his environment (there is no sunlight at all on the record; even the venetian blinds are closed on the cover), his buzz words, but so long as he eventually remembers that someday this will all seem funny, he doesn't need to break new ground.
Sometimes it's the arrangement that does in the material, flattening the melody and wasting a good lyric, as on "Something In The Night;" sometimes the track is doomed from the moment of conception ("Factory" tries to pass off workaday clichés as insight). And sometimes all it takes is an urgent Springsteen vocal or guitar solo, Clarence Clemons' swaggering sax, or the combination of Max Weinberg's pulsating drumming and a romantic image ("I go driving deep into the light in Candy's eyes") to pull a surprise success out of clutter. Somehow Darkness On The Edge Of Town works, through cumulative impact, variations on repetition, the sudden sizzling effect, and it's an achievement when an album so self-absorbed, claustrophobic and didactic can still be filled with blood and hope.
Springsteen is definitely out there on the wire, keeping his footing, making a few breathtaking daredevil moves. Shit, I don't know. Right now, in the middle of a heartbreak, Darkness sounds like the record it's supposed to be: a tough, exhaust-fumed hymn to feverish desire, a dissection of internal wounds that can be healed not by compromise but by conquest. Bruce Springsteen matters because he knows there is a vision worth pursuing: to find the dark glow of possibility in a beautiful woman's eyes, seize it, and run like hell as far as it will take you. Put your foot to the floor and, darling, don't look back.
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