Springsteen has come of age. He hasn’t abandoned the reckless romanticism that dominated Born To Run, but on Darkness on the Edge of Town he’s begun to question it, to think hard about its risks. One can’t help assuming that the bitter legal battle between Springsteen and his former manager, which is what delayed this album, is part of what hovers over Darkness on the Edge of Town, that the dispute helped strip away any last vestiges of innocence. As its title implies Darkness on the Edge of Town is his most pessimistic album, a dark view of the costs inherent in rebelling. He still knows that there are satisfactions there, yet he’s no longer sure that he can distinguish between rock heroes and rock victims. After all, he’s been both.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is, in any case, the most unified album Springsteen has made; it doesn’t have anything quite as ebullient as “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” or as reckless as “She’s the One.” This record is harsher and grittier. Instead of a wall of sound, Springsteen has put up a picket fence. The instrumentation is more open and distinct. Springsteen’s own guitar, at once cooler and more fiery than a sax, has replaced Clarence Clemons’s warm fat tenor leads (Clemons is on only three of the album’s ten cuts). The grandeur is still there – the arching guitar lines, the climactic drums – but it’s been roughened up. Nicks and scratches are being allowed to show. The language, too, has been stripped down to a basic set of images. The alliteration and mad rush of words that had virtually disappeared by Born To Run has now been completely banished. While it’s impossible to figure out many of the songs without a lyric sheet (one is provided), it’s not hard to understand them: Springsteen may strangle the last verse of “Adam Raised a Cain” or bury parts of “Badlands” in a cave of echo, yet the strangle and the echo tell you all you need to know.
“Mister, I aint a boy, no I’m a man,” Springsteen sings in “The Promised Land.” There’s nothing boastful about these words. Though he wants them to be taken as a simple statement of fact, he actually sings them as a plea for recognition. His voice has the tremor of someone who has decided to charge ahead no matter what the consequences. Still, it’s having a sense of consequences at all that makes Darkness on the Edge of Town his most mature album. It’s not that Springsteen has been oblivious to consequences in the past (they lie at the heart of “Backstreets” and “Jungleland”), but never before has he referred to them so often. Seizing the moment at whatever cost has always had a special meaning for Springsteen – “casing out the promised land,” “a last-chance power drive.” He has said that he writes about only those moments that contain no room for compromises, when you have to do something, anything, it doesn’t matter, as long as you bust out. But on Darkness on the Edge of Town there is greater uncertainty about what he’s rushing into. The darkness of the album’s title informs the entire record, and it holds out the possibility of defeat just as strongly as of redemption. “The Promised Land” of side two is the “Badlands” of side one. For Springsteen, ambivalence is the only thing left.
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