Because almost every song revolves around busting out (dreaming about it, failing at it, succeeding, succeeding but paying a price), because almost every song relies on the same imagery (highways, cars and night), Springsteen has never sounded as obsessed. There’s a tension to Darkness on the Edge of Town, an anger that he’s not quite expressed before – an anger that’s political, though I suspect Springsteen would not use that word. These songs are political in the same way that the best rock ‘n’ roll has always been: they come out of and reflect a specific social situation – not Springsteen as the child of small-town, working-class parents. When he sings about racing down the highway, he’s not just offering up a romantic fantasy of the road. It’s literally a means of escape – from the factory or daddy’s garage, from drudgery and impotence. “I want control right now,” he shouts in the “Badlands.” You could swear he was a punk. And in “Factory” you could swear he was a ‘50s folksinger. The simplest song on the album, “Factory” resembles an old-fashioned broadside. It has folk music’s concern for the dailiness of life and it moves in weary lockstep, but it’s the most violent song on the album: “And you better believe, boy/Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.” So much for the midnight run.
The notion that his heroism can hurt someone else, that it can have victims, is new for Springsteen. In “Factory,” he keeps it at a distance. (It’s his father, after all, who’s going to the factory.) In “Racing in the Street,” however, he pulls the notion to himself, “Racing in the Street” is the flip side of “Thunder Road.” The narrator is the same and he’s holding out the same promise to the girl – a chance “to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat,” to get away, to go racing in the street. In “Thunder Road” the promise is wonderful. Offering adventure and redemption, Springsteen’s narrator uses all his powers of persuasion – the allure of the automobile and an open highway and language that can sing. In “Racing in the Street,” the girl has come with him (in “Thunder Road” she never decides), but she’s no better off. She’s been shut up and shut down just like the racers the narrator takes on, and she’s left exactly where she started: “on the porch of her daddy’s house.”
In concert Springsteen has coupled the two songs; the slow mournful coda of “Racing” segues directly into the opening notes of “Thunder Road.” Springsteen has been quoted as saying that Darkness on the Edge of Town is about people starting nowhere and ending nowhere, and “Racing in the Street” seems to sum that up. It ends with a prayer: “For all the shut-down strangers and the hot-rod angels/Rumbling through this promised land.” Yet by ending with “Thunder Road” at the Music Hall, Springsteen came down on the side of possibility. The song at first seems a long descent into defeat though as Springsteen’s guitar comes in, and then Clemons’s saxophone, a kind of glory emerges – the glory of a battle won and lost, but a battle worth fighting. And as Springsteen and Clemons lean against each other at the edge of the stage, their lines going longer and higher and louder, there’s a feeling of triumph that redeems both the despair of “Racing in the Street” and the unfulfilled promise of “Thunder Road.”