I've been thinking recently about Bruce Springsteen's reissue of Darkness on the Edge of Town, including a 2-disc set of rarities and outtakes from that era called The Promise. And also 3 DVDs all for a ridiculous list price of $85+ for one release, but that's another story for another day. Unfortunately, when I cut my arm, I don't bleed dollar bills. So hopefully, one of these months I'll get around to listening to the rarities unearthed on The Promise. But in the meantime I listened to Darkness again recently and also the song, "The Promise" that was released as part of the Tracks boxed set of rarities in the late 90's.
While many fans would rate the more popular Born to Run, Born in the USA, or even the sprawling, classic double album The River, as their favorite, Darkness was always my favorite Springsteen album.
Bruce has always sung about the struggles, hopes, and dreams of the working-class. Born to Run was his idealistic "dreamer album" - songs about kids like him from a small towns trying to get out and hit the big time. It captured the unharnessed youthful restlessness of that era and the desire to do something, anything important and finally punch your ticket out of town. And it came through in big anthems like "Born to Run", "Jungleland", and "Thunder Road."
And the material after Born to Run reflected the difference in maturity as Bruce still had his idealism, but it was tempered with a healthy dose of realism (yes realism not cynicism...idealists too often accuse people of cynicism when it's very often just realism).
The mid-20's kid who wrote Born to Run thought he could change the world. And then shit happened. They had to delay the recording of the next album, because Springsteen was involved in a lawsuit with his manager Mike Appel, over the licensing deals he originally signed. It was probably more about power than money, but that kind of set the mood for the next album. Until the lawsuit was resolved, the band wasn't legally able to officially write or record new songs. But Bruce never stopped writing. And the new songs were more stripped-down and basic and less audacious. And in interviews since then Bruce mentioned that the back-to-basics approach was at least partly influenced by the excitement of the first wave of punk rock that oozed into the mainstream in 1977.
His first 3 albums were viewed as more urban albums, influenced by classic 50's and 60's rock and blues, so Clarence Clemons' saxophone was the perfect exclamation point to a lot of those songs. With Darkness it was more difficult to work in the Big Man, since these were more rural/Americana kinds of songs. But after listening to "Promised Land" again the sax and harmonica combination works so well that you wonder why it wasn't tried more. But this split between urban/rural music also explains why Bruce has recorded many of his folky albums without the E-Street Band ever since Darkness. The rest of the band works well with a certain style of songs and not as well as with others.
The late 20's guy who wrote the material on Darkness seemed to still be an idealist at heart, but he began to understand the lessons from the serenity prayer. And perhaps being a little scarred from his first legal battle and humbled by his newly found success, the old "Catholic guilt" kicked in. Born to Run was like the pre-fame album and Darkness is the aftermath and the realization that the world is still a pretty screwed up place, even after most your teenage dreams have come true.
Both albums contained songs about loners and loneliness, isolation and desperation. But in Born to Run he wanted to be somewhere else and even be someone else. Whereas in Darkness that feeling is replaced with more contentment without quite reaching resignation. It was finding comfort in his own skin again and reasserting who he really was. He was definitely not entirely comfortable with the idea of being the guy who was on the covers of Time and Newsweek as the "rock's new sensation" and a "rock star", coming out of nowhere after being at risk of being dropped from his label just a few months prior to that.
Before Darkness, his first 3 albums were mostly stories about people like him. On Darkness he was able to write with an uncommon depth about people he no longer had that much in common with any more (at least economically). But like all great songwriters and storytellers, he was able to empathize with the characters and themes he wrote about so convincingly that you still felt like he was singing about people he hung around with every week - the factory worker, the young kid drag racing, etc. Some of the songs on Darkness can be seen as an homage to his father, a middle class factory worker. As he said in the documentary, he still felt a kinship with these people and felt like he needed to write about their every-day struggles.
The transition to this songwriting style on Darkness is a common thread in all of his work since then. And I think the dichotomy of the Born to Run style vs the Darkness style, both musically and lyrically, is sort of the yin/yang of the Springsteen canon.
That's my $0.02 anyway.
Here's a clip of "Promised Land":
And another of "Badlands":
And this classic "Rosalita" clip from the same show was actually shown on MTV for a little while in the 80's: