A look back at Darkness on the Edge of Town by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen and director Thom Zimny premiered the documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town on Sept. 14, 2010 at the Toronto Film Festival. 

The film and accompanying release The Promise, a collection of 21 songs that didn’t make it onto the album, gave the world and fans new insight into the creation of the album that solidified Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s place in rock and roll history after many considered them finished.

After the commercial mammoth that was Born to Run, the pressure was on to make an album worthy of the fame and recognition Bruce and the Band had received.

The young and naïve Springsteen, however, had other plans, and became entangled in a bitter lawsuit with Born to Run’s co-producer, Mike Appel, over ownership of the work. The dispute lasted a year, thus keeping Springsteen out of the studio for the duration.

The time spent outside of the studio, away from his craft and entwined in the vicious realities of the recording industry was the catalyst that spurned the transformation between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.

No longer would Springsteen’s work be a mere portrait of a poetically fabricated world peopled by “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer,” “Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie,” or pretty Rosalita’s hanging out, burning and freezing down around 10th Avenue, Jungleland.

Instead, Springsteen’s focus shifted to more tangible matters like what it means to get up and work hard everyday, how to discover and affirm that a love is true, and through everything manage to keep alive a faith in the Promised Land. 

In listening to The Darkness on the Edge of Town, one realizes that the title refers not to some darker version of the fantasy lands of previous albums, but rather an unbearably real place. And from this vantage point in the Darkness, Springsteen would explore the themes that would sustain him for the rest of his career.

The excruciating work put into Darkness (the band reportedly worked on between 40 and 50 tracks for nearly a year) was essential in realizing the album’s final hardened and purposeful aesthetic. 

Much more natural than the blasting Born to Run, Darkness allows each instrument to be heard in its own voice.

The production allows for a few things. 

It allows each member’s talents can be fully appreciated on the album’s rippers (particularly “Badlands” and “Adam Raised a Cain”); it allows tamer tracks like “Something in the Night,” “Racing in the Street” and “Factory” to fit comfortably into the sonic mold; and it allows for a vibrant cross of the two to be developed on tracks like “The Promised Land,” “Streets of Fire,” “Prove It All Night” and, most exceptionally, the album’s title track, which flows from soft, lilting verses to wide open choruses without a hitch.

Although some of the subject matter still links back to the band’s previous work (the jittery, awkward romance of “Candy’s Room” stands out) the esotericism that characterized Springsteen’s earlier lyrics has been replaced by a more concrete (some may argue less artful) imagery. 

The purpose, however, is clear. Springsteen has no intention to paint a picture of “The Promised Land,” only to explore a determined belief in it; his “Streets of Fire” are not burning with infatuation, but are rather a place where “the weak lies and the cold walls you embrace eat at your insides;” and that the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is an authentic place that “lives on the line where dreams are found and lost.”

The release of The Promise at the end of last year only made more clear what Springsteen and the E Street Band made abundantly clear on Darkness on the Edge of Town: that even after achieving commercial and critical success, they had the wits, talent and courage to modify their process and aesthetic in order to create an album that is relevant, exciting and singularly important. 

Zachary Wolk, MXDWN