For years, I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen. I couldn’t stand “Born to Run”. Every time the song came on the classic rock station I listened to in high school, I turned to another station. His songs were everywhere, and his “every man” persona annoyed me. In college, I was getting into Bob Dylan. As an English major, his literary allusions appealed to me. I wanted songs rich in metaphor, songs like puzzles. One Christmas my older brother gave his wife Tracks, the boxed set of Springsteen’s unreleased tracks. On the cover, Springsteen was sprawled across the floor with a glum look on his face An expression that seemed to not only ask for sympathy, but demand it. God, he even looked like he’d be annoying in person.
I finally came around to Springsteen a few years later when I bought a copy of The Wild The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle for about 5 dollars. I’m not sure what possessed me to buy it, but it certainly wasn’t anything like I was expecting. Compared to Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., it sounded fun and lively. Taking a risk and just driving away, a theme present through much of Springsteen’s work never sounded as glorious and ridiculous as it did on “Rosalita”.
A little while later, I bought Darkness On The Edge Of Town for another 5 dollars. I knew little about the album (though the title alone should have been a clue) and decided to give in a chance. I didn’t particularly like it at first – it was too depressing. At a party, I told a friend who was as a huge as Springsteen fan as you can get, which albums I had. “Those are two random albums to have,” He told me in shock. “You don’t have Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A.?” A couple of Springsteen fans chimed in, and it was concluded that I randomly picked up his best album without even knowing it.
Flash forward about 7 years later, and Darkness is not only one of my favorite albums, but Springsteen is one of my favorite artists. But what is it about Darkness that appeals to so many people? Why do fans constantly rank this album above critically acclaimed masterpieces(Born to Run) or his blockbuster smashes (Born in the U.S.A.)?
Darkness represents the disappointment and disillusionment of the American Dream in a way no other album has. Born To Run showed the possibilities – the open road, the fantasy girls, the myth-making. It was even there in the music – the songs were big and full of production. Springsteen famously labored over the song “Born to Run” for months, and added dozens of over-dubs to make it great and bring his vision to the world. Rock and roll as salvation. That album was musical proof that if you worked hard enough you could achieve fame and fortune. You could achieve the American Dream. All you need is a guitar, honesty and a work ethic and you’d be set.
Darkness, on the other shows what happens when that dream is taken from you in front on your eyes. There are no grand gestures on Darkness. It’s a lean, tightly constructed album without excess. Even the cover was a stark contrast to the iconic sleeve of Born to Run -which had Springsteen leaning on the back of Clarence Clemons. Here were two friends sticking together and yearning for their piece of musical glory. On Darkness, Springsteen’s eyes are icy cold – filled with sadness. He’s done with the rock star thing – he wears a hoodie, and is hiding behind the closed blind.
The story behind the making of Darkness has reached legendary proportions – the legal disputes, the 3 year gap between about albums. This coming week, the audience finally gets to close a chapter on Darkness with the release of the The Darkness On The Edge Of Town boxed set. The remastered album and the live DVDs will surely be excited, but it is the inclusion of The Promise, a set out-takes that Springsteen wrote and recorded as he was making what would become Darkness that really has fans excited.
No doubt it will be good. But I’m not sure if it will be the great lost Springsteen album, like Dylan’s Basement Tapes. I say that because Springsteen specifically put songs on Darkness that spoke to the human condition. It’s very likely that The Promise won’t be there. Perhaps if we didn’t know the back-story, these songs might mean something more. But sandwiched between two great albums that speak different facets of life it might be hard to judge these songs any other way.