brent johnson looks back on one of The Boss’ seminal works …
Driving home from work the other night, I was inspired to try a little musical experiment.
I had just read Rolling Stone’s interview with Bruce Springsteen about the massive box-set reissue of his 1978 classic Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The article touched on the album’s history: how in the wake of his breakthrough Born To Run, Bruce was kept out of the studio for three years because of a legal battle with his former manager. How during that time, he wrote hordes of songs, jumping through various musical genres. And how he whittled those songs down to a lean yet robust 10 tracks — eschewing his sprawling early style for a hard-nosed, working-class template. It was here where Bruce went from street poet to voice of the people.
Still, as I read the interview, I remembered being a pre-teen growing up in Springsteen’s New Jersey, worshipping his music … and thinking Darkness was good but not as great as I was supposed to find it. I was more enamored with his first three albums, which brimmed with romance, exuberance and maze-like melodies. Darkness? It had its rocking bits and heartbreaking moments, I thought, but it was also too sad, too serious and, sometimes, too slow.
Hence, it’s an album I usually listen to in pieces. But now, in the midst of its re-introduction to the pop pantheon, I figured I’d give it another spin. So I slipped into my car, dialed it up on my iPod and listened to it front to back, without skipping any tracks.
And soon, I was reminded: Time doesn’t only bring you more wisdom — it can also transform the way you hear music.
As a kid, I was mostly drawn to catchy parts of Darkness — the rollicking riffs and soaring harmonies of ‘Badlands,’ the hi-hat drive of ‘Candy’s Room,’ the soul-pop passion of ‘Prove It All Night.’ Which made sense. It’s natural for a 12-year-old to be grabbed by more immediate music. I wasn’t mature or patient enough to fully appreciate the detail and delicacy of the other songs. To me, they dragged. They were boring. End of story.
But reliving the record the other day, those were the tracks that hit me the hardest. Driving down a highway engulfed by the navy-blue sky, the piano intro of ‘Something In The Night’ was mesmerizing, going from lilting to gripping — creeping slowly until it crashed into the verse. And while I once thought the languid sadness of ‘Racing In The Street’ made it the dullest song on the album, it now seemed perfect: the musical embodiment of dashed dreams.
Of course, I was now listening to Darkness as a 27-year-old — the same age Springsteen was when he recorded it. And I was listening to it as a person who had learned to play guitar, written his own songs, plugged through college, worked numerous jobs, lost some hair, seen his friends get married, seen family members die, seen his parents get weary. I was old enough to see beyond the melodies.
That was most obvious to me when my iPod landed on track seven: ‘Factory.’ Fifteen years ago, this would have been my least-favorite moment on Darkness — a reason to immediately press the skip button. I found it forgettable, repetitive, lyrically slight.
But now, I see Springsteen wrote it that way for a reason. It’s song about his factory-worker father getting up, getting dressed, getting to work and losing his hearing — just to feed his family. The song represents all of that in three simple verses, wrapped in a suitably subtle melody. In other words, it sounds like the story.
I like it a lot now.