Darkness On The Edge Of Town

6 Mar

The rock stars of yesterday are too often the uninspired institutions of today, which was I how used to view Bruce Springsteen.  Up until a few months ago, Springsteen existed in my mind solely to soundtrack 4th of July parties and Boomer retirement gigs in Jersey.  I didn’t have a negative opinion of him or his music, but could have cared less about it.  ‘Born in the USA’ was mainly a trigger to fond memories of sun-drenched BBQs and fireworks; the rest of his music faded into a haze of saxophones and gravelly-voiced innuendos.  That all changed when I came across an LP of his record “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”

“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” represents one of the qualities of great music that is easy to forget.  If an artist can capture the essential nature of a basic truth – be it something like love, death, war, etc. – then that music will have an immediacy and import to it that can last long after its creation.  Sometimes the meaning of that music will be pretty universal, in that everyone who hears it can feel the same emotional connection to the songs as everyone else.  But more often, the true feeling behind the music can evade a listener until they’re at a specific age in life, or they’re going through a defining experience – like finding true love, losing that love, or growing up.

So it was that I came to “Darkness,” standing squarely in the middle of my twenties and wondering what the hell this adult life is going to be all about.  And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a pissed-off, restless, and ravaged voice comes pealing out from the 70’s and puts a sound to some of the thoughts and emotions pinging around my head.

The raw emotion in “Darkness” comes in large part from Springsteen’s voice.  The vocals assume different tones throughout the album, but never lose a sense of urgency and yearning.  It’s never in doubt that Bruce urgently cares for everything he’s signing about.  At times, it seems that getting certain lyrics out was deadly important to him.  His narrative perspective straddles the line between a young, earnest idealism, and a scarred, hard-earned wisdom; this speaks directly to the twenties’ conflict between the blunt truths of the adult world and the idealistic sensitivity you still carry from youth.

The life of a young adult in today’s world is marked by excitement and confusion, with starts and stops of momentum.  It is strange and frustrating to feel stuck in place yet always on the verge of being overwhelmed by everything going on.  There are some recurring emotions and ideas that mark this life experience, and “Darkness” is bursting at the seams with them.  Over the course of ten tracks, Springsteen sings of long hot nights, the crushing nature of working life, the fear of never achieving your dreams, and the struggle with just settling or fighting to get above it all.

I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these / Badlands

It’s appropriate that “Darkness” begins with a song called “Badlands,” as the album is marked by constant descriptions of the narrator’s badlands – not necessarily a specific place, but more like a state of mind.  These badlands are a desolate place in one’s young life where the oppressive forces of the adult world are met by a desperate hope to rise above it all.  And Springsteen as the narrator is desperate to do just that.

One thing immediately noticeable in “Badlands” is the fervent energy coiled behind Springsteen’s voice – a vibration that grabs you and goes for the heart of what young adulthood is all about.  That energy carries throughout the album and seethes just below the surface for the most part.  When it comes out, it does so in unchecked bursts of yearning guitar, sax, and harmonica solos often sounding out back-to-back-to-back.  These solos appear throughout “Darkness,” representing the urgent, forceful spikes of emotion that can’t be fully conveyed through simple lyrics.  They are a sonic reflection of the frustrated energy that can shoot through you during another long day at a passionless job, or when the trust-fund kid peels out next to you in a brand new and unearned sports car.  They’re  vibrant bursts of anger, longing, and frustration that are unnervingly familiar.

Just kids wasted on / Something in the night

One core theme that appears throughout the tracks on “Darkness” is that of The Night.  Most of the action in the songs find the narrator at night, either with friends, lovers, or alone.  The constant use of the nighttime setting provides another strong connection to life in your twenties.  At times, it can seem as though most of your life experience at this age occurs in the dark – the time at work during the day just becomes a vague blur, a precursor to when you can finally escape the grind and go out at night with your friends.  Or pursue romances that constantly toe the line between love and lust.  Springsteen seems to know that real living often comes after sundown, and he provides some lasting and immediately relatable images in this vein.

One such image comes from “Something In The Night.”  The track begins with a slow and almost-primal moan from Springsteen that echoes with the yearning of something you’re not even sure exists.  “Something” continues as Bruce describes driving alone in a car at night, always looking for something that escapes definition.  As you enter adulthood, your lack of clear ties – no family, no established career, always renting – can feel very much like driving aimlessly through the night, alone with your thoughts and a particularly resonant song on the radio.  Bruce captures this perfectly with “Darkness.”

The dogs on Main Street howl ‘cause they understand / If I could take one moment into my hands

One of the most important and meaningful aspect of “Darkness”  is its central theme of striving to rise up above the oppressive and depressing realities around you.  Springsteen uses images of desert badlands and grim working-class factory towns to represent the cold realities of adult life.  In his songs, these realities come into sharp conflict with the passionate idealism of a young adult, who constantly has “hot blood” burning in their veins.

This “hot blood” is one of the many sharply evocative images in Springsteen’s lyrics, and when he uses it to describe one’s angered frustration at the environment they’re in, it’s hard to think of a better term for the young adult’s experience.  The sacrifice of your time and energy to the constant grind of faceless adult working life is a quietly disturbing concept to an idealistic and hopeful younger self; your blood can boil with anger at your own acquiescence to this reality of growing up.  It’s often a necessary fact of life, however.  Dealing with this fact while also yearning to rise above it and find another way to succeed is a central conflict as you continue to grow up.

Listening to Bruce grapple with these concepts in “Darkness” is a moving experience, and provides a welcome nod to the fact that these internal conflicts have been shared by many.  The deep feelings of anger, melancholy, and defiance come through clearly in Springsteen’s lyrics, voice, and instruments.  Hearing the full album in one sitting can be a cathartic experience.

I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town

When a piece of music connects with you as strongly as “Darkness” does, it becomes more than just a simple piece of entertainment.  The songs can actually influence how you feel –  they can change the way you approach the rest of your day, your week, your year, maybe your life.

“Darkness” is initially affecting in that it offers an emotional release; hearing Springsteen channel these forceful and immediate feelings into music allows you to feel as if you yourself are the one yelling your heart out over booming drum rolls.  By the time the title track comes around to end the album, Springsteen has moved from providing a release to delivering a sense of hope and inspiration for the future.  He sings of wanting what’s in the darkness at the edge of town, and for me, that darkness represents future possibilities outside of the structured, mind-numbing sameness of the safe status quo.  Yes, it’s a risk to leave the safety of town and head into the dark unknown.  But the restless frustration that comes from resigning your spirit is a heavy price to pay for security.

“Darkness” is ten tracks from an angry, passionate man who understands how high the stakes can seem at a pivotal era in your young life.  While he’s evoking the desolate emotional badlands where many have found themselves as they transition into the adult world, he’s also pointing to the dangerously uncertain darkness as a remaining source of hope and unbroken dreams.  The album is a thrilling, mournful, and essential contribution to the world of music that is just as important today as it was thirty-four years ago.

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