Bruce Springsteen

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Chris Brazier

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Even if first impressions don't accord "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" (great title) the epic completeness of "Born To Run," this is still a convincing evocation of the beauty and power in Springsteen's world.

He is so important because he comes closer than anyone else to embodying in his work all the generative themes of rock 'n' roll, to fusing all its essential elements into a single potent mythology, at the same time infusing that mythology with a warmth and humanity that makes it (and him) irresistibly attractive.

His characters live out their fantasies and frustrations against the harsh and brooding backdrop of the city, desperately dreaming and forever aspiring with a spirit which envelops them in a romance and a romanticism that is all the more poignant, painful but beautiful because it is asserted against a vista of ugliness and sordidity—thus the screeches and roars of cars become "an opera" and an alley-fight "a ballet."

His early albums were rooted entirely in his home district of Asbury Park (with a microcosmic rather than parochial vision), and while "Darkness" reflects the more cosmopolitan existence into which his career has propelled him by giving his songs a broadly American setting, his themes are the same.

Love and cars, essential rock 'n' roll components from Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys onwards, become twin (potential) saviours, the only means of escape from the dullness and monotony of dead-end labour—"you work nine to five and somehow you survive till the night"—and the characters exorcise their agony in the exhilaration of speed or passion.

The two are inextricably linked in Springsteen's work, no less here than in earlier instances, such as the backseat romance of "New York City Serenade" or the invitation to fulfilment in "Thunder Road."

The union of love and cars reaches its climax in this album on side one's last two tracks, "Candy's Room" and "Racing In The Street," the finest pieces here….

[In "Candy's Room",] sex and driving become indistinguishable, the one's strength expressed in terms of the other, as the hero goes "driving deep into the light of Candy's eyes."

And the union is just as explicit in the album's tour de force, "Racing In The Street." Here Springsteen devotes what I swear at the moment seems like the most gorgeous, glorious melody I've ever heard to what is, unmistakably, a love-song to his "'69 Chevy," as well as a paean to the joy of escape through speed from the "death-trap."

Significantly, his love transfers to one of his fated heroines in the last verse, a girl he met in a car, and with whom he drives off into the night at the end in lines that only Springsteen could have written—"For all the shut-down strangers and hot rod angels / Rumbling through this promised land / Tonight my baby and me, we're gonna ride to the sea / And wash these sins off our hands."

The idea of "sin" is also central to Springsteen's work, and not merely because he is fond of Old Testament imagery. Parts of the misery and beauty of the world he paints is that there's little hope of final escape—the cars that carry you away bring you back to start the next working day as well—and the common person is frustrated either by Fate or by some undefined "they" representing the system above, in a notion very close to the Biblical one of original sin.

Thus in "Badlands" … the hero's only hope and prayer is one day to be raised above the badlands of his current hardship, but he recognises that...

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you "Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don't come," and the message elsewhere is similar: "You're born with nothing, and better off that way / Soon as you've got something they send someone to try and take it away."

This Promethean idea of aspiration against impossible odds, together with the stress on love, joy and darkness, places Springsteen (like the spirit of rock 'n' roll itself) in the grand tradition of romanticism, whether he realises it or not.

His fascination with the forbidding "darkness on the edge of town" is one sign of that, as is his rejection of the conventional "voices" who'll "never know / What it means to steal, to cheat, to lie / What it's like to live and die," and he also shows the same identification and sympathy with Cain that the Romantic poets felt in "Adam Raised A Cain."

[The Cain out east rebel figure has always been somewhere near the heart of rock 'n' roll…. In this claustrophobically charged, gut-wrenching hotbed of a song Springsteen links the mark of Cain with the "hot blood" inherited from a father who "worked his whole life for nothing but the pain."

That ogre of soul-destroying labour is an ever-present factor here, and "Factory" brings it into focus as a direct cause of violence, a quiet, understated comment on "the working life." Understated, that is, except for the lines "Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain / I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain," which would be an easy target for a hostile ear.

As indeed would "Streets Of Fire," the weakest track, mainly because Springsteen hurls his vocal over the top in what seems through its exaggeration like a parody of passion.

And while we're on the faults, there are certain assumptions about women which I half feel like ignoring because of Springsteen's general sensitivity and humanity, but the fact is that his heroines have a habit of wanting men to buy them "fancy clothes and diamond rings" like Candy, and "Prove It All Night" even suggests that "one kiss" will get the girl "a gold ring and a pretty dress of blue."

In a way, this aspect of Springsteen's world is an inevitable concomitant of its embodying all of rock 'n' roll's themes—rock has, after all, always had a distressing tendency to bolster up traditional male attitudes to women.

The only other flaws worth mentioning are that "Something In The Night"'s unaccompanied passage doesn't come off, and its lyrical ideas are disjointed to the point of incomprehensibility, and that side two lacks a killer punch….

After such a long silence he was under pressure again, and "Darkness" is a similarly controlled achievement [as with "Born to Run"] which is still successful at times stunningly so, but one which lacks the wonderfully uplifting exuberance and spontaneity of early songs like, say, "Rosalita."…

This album should bring Springsteen the success he deserves, and I hope that'll allow him to relax a bit instead of forcing himself onward.

I feel a little let down at having to assume a critical stance in relation to this record when I'd thought I'd be able to fall madly in love with it, but "Darkness On The Edge of Town" is still a fine album which in no way diminishes my admiration for and delight in Bruce Springsteen.

Chris Brazier, "Springsteen: Reborn and Running Again," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 10, 1978, p. 10.


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