[It] is hard to believe that Darkness on the Edge of Town …, Bruce Springsteen's first album in almost three years, is as bad as it is….
In a certain sense, I suppose that Springsteen has succeeded. Darkness has all the earmarks of a "mature statement from a major voice." His new songs use a lean instrumentation, while his new lyrics add a tragic tint to his melodramatic romanticism. The album even opens on a reassuring note with "Badlands," a compact rerun of patented Springsteen riffs.
But by compressing all his favorite themes of frustration and hope, repression and rebellion, into one emblematic anthem like "Badlands," Springsteen unwittingly illuminates the strained seriousness and failure of imagination that mars the rest of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
In place of the effortless grace that distinguishes great rock and roll, the listener is subjected to plodding band tracks, mush-mouthed vocals and an aura of hyped-up hysteria all the more depressing given the utter predictability of all the moves. On side one, there are songs about cars, streets and darkness; on side two, there are more songs about cars, streets and darkness. Struggling to evoke an automotive outlaw, Springsteen sounds like a constipated cowboy drowning in oatmeal.
Born to Run had its flaws, but at least it made Springsteen sound spontaneously impassioned. His new album is not "mature"; it's embalmed. Compare a new song like "Streets of Fire" to an old one like "Rosalita," and the difference is audible. Despite a botched tempo and dropped notes galore, "Rosalita" is fresh, unruly, alive. "Streets of Fire" is mummy music.
If it breaks the spell of high expectations imprisoning him, this debacle may yet enable Springsteen to give himself more of the psychological space he obviously needs to create music that sounds genuinely felt rather than hopelessly contrived. Until then, he will remain a casualty of media canonization, cut loose from the roots that once gave his music immediacy, authority and an unforced importance.
Jim Miller, "Records: 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'," in New Times (copyright © 1978 by New Times Publishing Company), Vol. II, No. 3, August 7, 1978, p. 65.