Bruce Springsteen's 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' at 40: Nighttime, Freedom & the Eternal Chase
In the Bruce Springsteen songwriting universe, nothing good ever happens in the daytime. The hours between sunup and sundown are when you sweat it out on the streets, work on the highway, and drive your girlfriend’s yapping mother down to the unemployment agency. Nighttime is when the real battles are lost and won. It’s treacherous, mister, but at least you’ve got a shot.
Few albums in Bruce’s catalog are more rooted in the night than 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, which celebrates its 40th anniversary on June 2. The album is generally held up in stark contrast to Springsteen’s previous effort, 1975’s Born to Run, that romantic Spector-meets-Orbison street opera that might best be summed up by the lyric, “Show a little faith / There’s magic in the night.” While Darkness on the Edge of Town is darker, edgier, and townie-er than its predecessor, the songs reveal Springsteen’s unshakable fascination with the world after dark.
The action in seven of the album’s 10 songs takes place at least partially at night. That includes opener “Badlands,” where Springsteen makes painfully clear the difference between day and night. “Workin’ in the fields / ‘til you get your back burned,” he sings in the second verse, establishing his narrator as regular nine-to-fiver in a world where not even rich men or kings are satisfied. What’s a poor working man to do? “I wanna go out tonight,” Bruce sings. “I wanna find out what I’ve got.”
“Badlands” is about personal accounting, tallying the love and faith you’ve saved up and weighing that against the cruelty and indifference all around you. Bruce sings “Badlands” with last-call desperation, like he can’t face another day on the wrong end of the ledger. He’s making these calculations after quitting time, off the clock, when he’s the freest he can be.
Springsteen’s Darkness characters don’t just want to find out what they’ve got. They’re struggling to figure out what they want. The guy in “Something In the Night” drives aimlessly through the streets with the radio blasting so he can shut his brain off for a while. He’s obsessed with something he can’t even picture, let alone verbalize. That’s why the most important lyric in the whole song is that “waaah-aaah-aaah-aah” in the intro. And yet for all the bleakness in this wounded ballad, Springsteen makes the narrator’s existential crisis sound kind of sexy. There’s a thrill in every chase—even the ones that lead nowhere.
The characters Bruce voices in “Candy’s Room” and “Racing In the Street” are more clued-in and therefore more tragic. In the former, Springsteen’s narrator wants only to lose himself in the thrill of the night. That’s where Candy, the girl of his dreams, forgets about all her rich suitors in the city and chooses him to be her boy. Max Weinberg’s frantic drumming match the character’s pulse as he fantasizes about something that might never be.
And then there’s the aging drag racer in “Racing In the Street,” one of the finest and saddest songs Springsteen has ever written. As the character tells us, “Some guys just give up living / and start dying little by little, piece by piece,” but he’ll be damned if he’s going out like that. This self-aware manchild would rather roar down the fire roads after work in his ‘69 Chevy in a futile attempt to outrun the ghost of his youth and the nagging fear he’s wasted his life.
Meanwhile, his poor girlfriend sits home with no revving 396 to drown out the voices in her head. Still, the song ends with its own “magic in the night” moment, as the narrator and his girl light out for the beach to “wash these sins off our hands.”
If you hear the album’s closing title track as a continuation of the story, then it seems the scrubbing only works for one of them. “Now I hear she’s got a house up in Fairview,” Bruce sings in the first verse. “And a style she’s trying to maintain.” His baby’s settled down, gone respectable. But our hero’s stubborn. On any given night, he’ll be “up on that hill” with everything he’s got because he just can’t stop. Springsteen the songwriter pities this guy, but also sees a reflection of himself.
Whereas “Racing in the Street” is a stark piano ballad custom-built to make you tear up, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is rugged, assured, almost triumphant. It’s about coming to terms with the fact that you’ll always keep chasing something you can only glimpse at night—maybe when you’re fooling around with muscle cars, maybe when you’re playing guitar in some beachside bar. Maybe it still eludes you when you’re playing three-hour shows to thousands of screaming fans or doing five nights a week on Broadway.
The song that sounds more like Springsteen’s personal anthem, though, is “Prove It All Night.” This one’s got the sing-along chorus and the party-time Clarence Clemons sax solo and the more uplifting way of stating the album’s pragmatic theme: “Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price.” “Prove It All Night” lifts the mood of Darkness for a good four minutes. Everything’s brighter, but we’re still hours away from dawn.