His career depended on 1975 album Born to Run being a hit and he poured everything he had into its eight tracks. It worked. Springsteen was a star and Born to Run would forever be his magnum opus.
Springsteen found fame was not all he’d dreamt of it being. Most of the money he made was tied up in bills, lawyers’ fees and back taxes. He and the E Street Band couldn’t enter a recording studio without approval of his manager Mike Appel, who Springsteen was suing to get out of contracts.
In the music world punk had exploded, increasing the abrasion of rock music and sweeping young listeners up. Springsteen had the rage and, unlike most of these punk groups, his band had the chops. It was time to crank up the darkness.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s moodiest and most combative record. It stripped the ultra-lush layers of the Born to Run sound back to reveal more jagged edges. Springsteen’s baritone was defiant on the classic opener Badlands (“I want to find one face that ain’t looking through me, I want to find one place, I want to spit in the face of these badlands”). To follow it up, he roared about his turbulent relationship with his father on Adam Raised a Cain. Even in its more positive moments, the album never lets up. The band punctuates Springsteen’s words with urgent playing, unleashing guitar and sax solos when words are no longer enough.
The record’s centrepiece and standout track dials back the aggression. Racing in the Street is essentially a piano ballad about illegal drag racing. But in true Springsteen fashion its story takes a turn as the listener realises its narrator should have moved past this lifestyle long ago. The girl whose heart he won on the strip is now a wreck. She needs a man who can settle down, stop risking his life for cash, earn a normal living and create a happy home. The song’s protagonist says he will attempt to move forward, but we are left doubting whether he is capable. The closing title track, another stunner which could be Racing in the Street’s sequel, offers little hope for better days: “I lost my money and I lost my wife, them things don’t seem to matter much to me now. Tonight I’ll be on that hill cause I can’t stop, I’ll be on that hill with everything I got, lives on the line where dreams are found and lost. I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost, for wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.”
Darkness on the Edge of Town was initially considered somewhat of a disappointment after the life-affirming Born to Run but has rightly grown in stature to become just as revered among fans and critics. Springsteen would respond with The River and go on to even bigger stardom. The darkness did not win out, but it resulted in some of the finest tracks he ever recorded.