top of page
  • Writer's picturePete Chianca

'Darkness' at 45: Here's why it could be Springsteen's greatest album

There's simply no discussion of Bruce Springsteen's best albums that doesn't have Darkness on the The Edge of Town in the running, and perhaps heavily favored to top that list. As we mark its 45th birthday June 2, here is my argument for the album's towering status from my book "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums."


Cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen


Released: June 2, 1978

Highest Chart Position: US 5 / UK 16

Track Listing:

1. Badlands

2. Adam Raised a Cain

3. Something in the Night

4. Candy's Room

5. Racing in the Street

6. The Promised Land

7. Factory

8. Streets of Fire

9. Prove It All Night

10. Darkness on the Edge of Town

EVEN IF MUSICAL ATTENTION SPANS tended to be a little longer in the pre-MTV era, there’s no denying that three years was a long time to go between albums in the late 1970s – especially for a young artist who’s just had his first breakout hit. While fans who loved Born to Run were clamoring for Bruce Springsteen’s next project, from that album’s release in 1975 right through the spring of 1978, their hopeful trips to the local record shop went unrewarded.

Of course, Springsteen’s exile wasn’t exactly self-imposed: a bitter legal battle with his former manager Mike Appel barred him from recording, as arguably less compelling artists like Rod Stewart and Kiss were cheerfully cranking out an album a year and watching their singles rise up the charts. By all accounts, the experience had a sobering effect on Springsteen.

Judging from the outtakes finally released on 2010’s The Promise boxed set, what might have followed Born To Run was a horn-driven, soul-infused retro rock album. But when Springsteen came out from under that lawsuit, he was apparently ready to delve deeper and darker. In the end, what we got in Darkness on the Edge of Town was something angrier, more powerful, and definitely worthy of consideration as Springsteen’s greatest work.

Darkness was released in June of 1978, and from the first snap of Max Weinberg’s thundering drumbeats to open “Badlands,” it was clear this was a departure from the Wall-of-Sound escape fantasies that populated Born To Run. “When I was making this particular album, I just had a specific thing in mind,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone afterward. “It had to be just a relentless ... just a barrage of that particular thing.”

Whatever that nameless “thing” was – maybe despair at being trapped or frustration with the broken promises of adulthood, or just a “head-on collision smashing in your guts” – one spin through the album is all you need to prove that Springsteen nailed it. Musically it’s his hardest album, marked by vicious guitar, driving piano and pounding, even hellacious percussion. But beyond that, there’s a laser-focused sense of struggle, and often of outright despair, that suffuses Darkness from beginning to end.

“Badlands,” with its hardened acceptance of an unfair world and its inevitable broken hearts, still shares some of the promise of escape that the heroes of “Born To Run” trafficked in – Springsteen’s steely narrator insinuates that it’s still possible to rise up, as long as you don’t “waste your time waiting.” But it doesn’t take long before even those vestiges start to fray.

The sinister, straining guitar that starts off “Adam Raised a Cain” is like nothing else in Springsteen’s canon, and his hollering vocals – thick with venom and accentuated by the band’s shouted responses – meet the guitar part head on. The story the song tells, of a father’s failures projected onto his son, is unrelenting and furious.

With "Adam,” Darkness starts its journey into a more nuanced and resonant world than the ones of Springsteen’s previous albums, one populated by real adults facing stark questions. The most pressing of those is one that Born To Run failed to raise, much less answer: Escape is fine, but what if in the end, there’s nowhere to escape to?

On Darkness, the answer is often that you wind up chasing shadows that lead inevitably to dead ends – or worse, to nothing at all. The groans that open “Something in the Night” fill out a bleak picture that goes beyond words, or even rational thought – better to turn the radio up and not think, the song seems to argue, than to face a reality where you’re more than likely than not to end up “burned and blind.”

The strung-out rebel of “Streets of Fire,” a more plodding track that benefits from Springsteen’s aching guitar work, faces a similar fate, and “Factory” perfectly captures in two minutes and 18 seconds the toll that the numbing drudgery of work can take on a man with no other options. The anchors of Darkness, though, are the songs that close out each album side, both of which paint raw, emotional pictures of a foreboding adult world.

On side 1, “Racing in the Street” was and remains a towering achievement for Springsteen. It’s a story song that takes its time to introduce its sad characters, moving from the narrator’s car – the famous “’69 Chevy with a 396” – to his friend Sonny, and eventually to the “little girl” whose dreams will die a slow, hard death. It’s unyielding in its utter realism and its depiction of the choices most of us face, one worse than the next – and it fastidiously avoids a happy ending.

Instead, it moves into an extended instrumental conclusion that’s held together by the gloriously intertwined keyboard work of Danny Federici and Roy Bittan. It’s a masterful, slow-building coda that takes the character’s hard and complicated emotions and somehow wordlessly builds on them. You can imagine the narrator and his girl, the one who “hates for just being born,” slow-dancing to it at dusk, for just those few minutes managing to stave off the pain.

That song’s counterpart on side 2, the album-closing title track, is more allegorical but equally uncompromising. Its narrator has lost his money and his marriage, and has a dark secret that he may cut loose, or that may drag him down – either way, the price of wants and dreams of any kind seems too great to bear.

Musically, like a lot of the other songs on Darkness, it builds and ebbs, then builds again, the thump of Garry Tallent’s bass giving way to Weinberg’s masterful, deliberately punctuated percussion and Bittan’s powerful piano. Through it all, Springsteen yells and grunts – “huh!” – and his distant groan is the last voice you hear as the album fades.

But maybe even more telling are the songs that follow “Racing” and lead into “Darkness.” First, “The Promised Land” picks up where “Badlands” leaves off, its hero promising that he’s “gonna take charge,” and sounding like he means it when he talks of taking a knife to the pain in his heart. And “Prove It All Night,” the album’s penultimate track, comes closest to breaking Springsteen’s promise to leave the album bereft of love songs. That edict benefited Darkness as a whole, but at the same time it serves to make “Prove It” even more resonant in its faith in the redemptive power of love and human relationships. It argues that such redemption is possible if you want it enough to take it – and that it can be worth the price if you do.

Through that prism, the rough-and-tumble losers of the rest of Darkness – from the forlorn narrator of “Racing” to the yearning would-be lover of “Candy’s Room” – take on a different sheen, as does the album: rather than give in to utter hopelessness, it actually somehow manages to wring hope out of the direst of situations. Maybe even cut that pain from your heart.

That’s why in the end, despite its downbeat reputation, Darkness winds up being more uplifting than the sum of its parts. As Dave Marsh said in his effusive Rolling Stone review upon the album’s release, “Darkness on the Edge of Town faces everyday life whole, daring to see if something greater can be made of it.” It tells of how there’s nothing wrong with being glad you’re alive, and that it’s possible, even remotely, that we might actually prove ourselves worthy of something better.

Ultimately, Springsteen’s achievement with Darkness on the Edge of Town is not how deftly he leads us into a dark tunnel, but how he manages to pull us out the other end.

1 comment

1 Comment

Jun 02, 2023

Brilliant review, the honesty and the power of the album's first listening when I bought it in late '78 lives on to this day, and is the bedrock for all the journeys I continue to make following Bruce Springsteen. No album has had a greater affect.

bottom of page