Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Bruce Springsteen - Darkness On The Edge Of Town

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #13:

Not to detract from the expansive, all-embracing ambition of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle or the often-breathtaking magnificence and revelatory grandeur of Born to Run, but Bruce Springsteen's fourth release, Darkness at the Edge of Town, stands the test of time for me as his best album musically and lyrically.

The escapist romanticism of Born to Run, where “It’s a town full of losers / We’re pulling out of here to win,“ is enthralling and full of longing you can almost touch. But, in addition to the encouraging artistic sign that Springsteen wasn't releasing “Re-born to Re-run”, I ultimately embraced the grittier realism that marks the darkness of the town left behind, nestled in a bleakness “where no one asks any questions, or looks too long in your face.”

After all, there may be a surprise or two lurking in the shadows, as reflected by "In Candy’s Room,” wherein Springsteen sings “in the darkness there’ll be hidden worlds that shine," and, in the title song, where he’ll gladly pay the cost “for wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.”

Three years after the 1975 Born To Run classic in which he contended “I want to guard your dreams and visions,” Springsteen shatters those kind of hopeful, almost precious dreams as he revisits in Darkness, his roots, in effect coming back home. Indeed, in addition to its many metaphors of darkness and defeat, the album is permeated with considerable references and allusions to broken dreams or the futility of blind expectation. In the Spector-esque Wall of Born-to-Run, “Prove It All Night" (Big Man!), you can hope for the fat chance, but best prepare for facing facts: “If dreams came true, oh wouldn’t that be nice / But this ain’t no dream…"

The powerful one-two counterpunch that begins Darkness, “Badlands” and “Adam Raised A Cain,” comprises a give-and-take of will and fate. In a resolute “Badlands,” Springsteen almost sounds like he, indeed, “Got a head-on collision / Smashin’ in my guts, man.” Regardless, he’s a man on a perhaps overzealous mission to “spit in the face of these Badlands” and set things right.

I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes
I don’t give a damn for just the in-betweens.
Honey I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now.
You better listen to me baby:
Talk about a dream, try to make it real.
You wake up in the night with a fear so real.
You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.
Well don’t waste your time waiting…

“Talk about a dream, try to make it real.” No assurances here, not even with the emotively restorative insistence that “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” You can be sure that that kind of positive outlook is nowhere to be found amid the anguished and propulsive call-and-response passion of the next song, “Adam Raised A Cain,” driven by Springsteen’s vocal fury and stinging and searing guitar work. Fate intervenes, belying the willfulness of “Badlands,” and caps it off with mention of a more insidious variety of dream, one more in line with the title song’s evoking of “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost”:

In the Bible Cain slew Abel and East of Eden he was cast
You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
You inherit the sins you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain

Lost but not forgotten from the dark heart of a dream
Adam raised a Cain

There’s got to be a middle ground between foolhardy bridge-burning -- the wheel-spinning urge to spit upon and spurn your circumstances -- and sins-of-the-father destiny. In the reflective, mid-tempo “The Promised Land,” the narrator is anxious and antsy but assumes a deeper maturity that may signal enough strength and determination to put his restlessness to work for him, to help him find a way out of the darkness.

“Mister," he sings with conviction, “I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man / And I believe in the promised land”:
There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.

Maybe this time, he is the one with the faith to stand his ground, and the will-do desire to finally see the “dark heart of a dream” blow away.


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