Born to Run was the album that sparked my appreciation for Bruce Springsteen’s music, but Darkness on the Edge of Town was the album that made me a fan.
In 2015, when Born to Run turned 40, I wrote about the day I fell in love with it. A chance discussion about Springsteen at a family reunion sent me reaching for the Bruce albums on my iPod the next day, as my family traversed an epic snowstorm to drive back home. I had five Bruce records on my mp3 player, but I’d never really given full attention to any of them. They were all records from my parents’ CD collection, and at the time, I still stupidly believed (perhaps self-consciously) that older music couldn’t be my music in the same way as something released in my lifetime.
On that snowy drive home, I cycled through the Bruce albums on my iPod: the bombastic, optimistic dream of Born to Run; the scrappy underdog symphony of Greetings from Asbury Park; the deeply ‘80s-sounding Born in the U.S.A.; the resilient recovery rock of The Rising; and the sparse storytelling of Devils and Dust. I loved Born to Run immediately. I liked The Rising a lot, too. I had trouble getting over how dated Greetings and Born in the U.S.A. sounded to my ears at the time, but I liked the songs. And Devils was fine, but mostly didn’t move me.
Still, I was intrigued enough by what I heard to do the requisite full catalog download when I finally got home that night. Even though I didn’t love everything I’d listened to in the car that day, I could sense that there was a songwriter here who had something to say about the world I was living in, about my life. The assumption that my parents’ music couldn’t be my music too was fracturing before my eyes.
The next day was the first official day of Christmas Break, but I had to head into town to run a few errands and meet up with friends. For the drive, I chose Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was an album that had been name-dropped in a review for my favorite album of the year, Butch Walker’s Sycamore Meadows. Both were albums made in the wake of some sort of strife or tragedy, and both supposedly found the artist at their liveliest and most resilient. If Darkness was anything like Sycamore Meadows, I was sure I’d be a fan.
By the time “Badlands” hit its first chorus, I knew Bruce was going to play a big role in my life. Bruce sounded so hungry. I didn’t know much about him or his story or legacy at that point, but I knew what passion sounded like, and this guy had it. The other songs on the record were no less impressive: the spectral cries at the end of “Something in the Night”; the dejected hopelessness of “Racing in the Street”; the harmonica-blasted stomp of “The Promised Land.” As I drove through my snow-covered hometown, letting those songs explode through my car at a volume that was probably unsafe for both my ears and my speakers, I fell in love.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed, I’d journey deep down the Springsteen rabbit hole. By the end of Christmas Break, I was well-versed in his discography. By the end of my senior year of high school, less than six months later, he was in the running for my favorite artist ever. Almost 10 years later, his music has served as a soundtrack and guide at so many significant moments in my life. I’ve even come to appreciate those records that I didn’t love in the car on that snowy day in December 2008. In Born in the U.S.A., I found a complex story about friendship, nostalgia, and faded glory. In Greetings, I found the drive and ambition of an artist who wasn’t a superstar yet, but was going to get there out of sheer force of will. Even Devils & Dust eventually clicked, its lush production lending potency to both its lightweight, infectious pop songs and its heavy narrative-driven ballads.
Without Darkness, though, I’m not so sure any of that would have happened. I didn’t relate to it as much as Born to Run, which is the perfect album for someone hurtling toward the end of high school and all the possibility that lingers beyond. But I sensed that these songs would speak to me more as I got older and started learning some of the bitterer truths of the world. It says something that, even then, I was thinking about what Bruce Springsteen’s records would mean to me five, 10, or 20 years down the road.
I know lots of Springsteen fans who started out like me, as ardent devotees of Born to Run, but eventually shifted their allegiances to Darkness on the Edge of Town. The leap makes sense. Where Born to Run is an album about dreaming with every fiber of your being, Darkness is a record about what you do when the lights go out, and you’re all alone, and none of those dreams ended up coming true. For Springsteen, the shift in mindset came from a bitter legal battle with former manager Mike Appel—a war that barred him from the studio for three years. For the rest of us, the shift tends to come from life itself, and from the little failures and stumbles that turn into mountains we cannot climb.
Personally, I never stopped believing in the optimism of Born to Run. Thoughts of rolling down the windows and letting the wind blow back my hair, or of dying on the street tonight in an everlasting kiss, still sound as romantic to me at 27 as they did at 18. Of Bruce’s “reality” records, I’ve come to appreciate The River more than Darkness, for how it distills both darkness and light into a record that, to paraphrase Bruce, sounds as big as life. Still, I was right when I predicted that Darkness would come to mean more to me as I got older. While The River offers a more complete portrait of adult life and family, Darkness has the distinction of being Bruce’s most resilient record.
Darkness on the Edge of Town is the Springsteen album that sounds best when you feel like your life is going nowhere…or at least nowhere good. There are sadder records: Tunnel of Love is a better friend for those nights when you drink your loneliness away, and Nebraska is hypnotic on dejected late-night drives through the middle of nowhere. But Darkness can hold you in its grasp when you’re not sad enough for Tunnel or hopeless enough for Nebraska, but also not in the mood for the anthemic Bruce that everybody loves. In the wake of my college graduation, as I stumbled around trying to figure out what “life in the real world” looked like for me, Darkness was the Bruce album I reached for.
I remember one afternoon, sitting in the apartment I shared with my girlfriend (now wife), when she was off at work. That day alone, I’d sent off probably two-dozen resumes and cover letters that I fully expected never to hear back about. I was feeling low: defeated, directionless, and maybe a little worthless. I don’t remember putting Darkness on, but I do remember reveling in it. The songs never sounded as clear to me as they did on that afternoon: their grit, their blood, their rage. I especially gravitated to the closing song and title track, the last verse in particular:
Some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway, anyhow
I lost my money and I lost my wife
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I’ll be on that hill cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
Reading and listening to people talk about Springsteen over the years, I’ve come to understand that people view this verse as powerfully sad and almost unrelentingly bleak. It’s not hard to see why: the character here has lost everything and knows it ain’t coming back. Springsteen himself cast the song as a work of tragedy, by saying that Darkness mirrored the “four corners” structure of Born to Run. Each side begins with hope but concludes with defeat. But where “Jungleland” seems to end Born to Run by killing youth at the end of a grim, bloodstained night, I always heard hope in “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” “Tonight, I’ll be on that hill, cause I can’t stop/I’ll be on that hill with everything I got.” As bad as things look for the protagonist of this song, nowhere does it sound like he’s giving up.
That’s what I took from Darkness that day in my post-college apartment, and what I continue to take from it half a decade later: don’t give up. Sometimes, things come easy. Other times, you have to work at them; be on that hill with everything you got; walk the darkness of Candy’s hall; prove it all night. I eventually figured that out, and the revelation got me to a better place.
Today, Darkness on the Edge of Town isn’t necessarily my favorite Bruce album to revisit. It takes me back to a time when I felt angry and aimless and betrayed, even though I was probably just scared: scared of what the future might look like if I failed, if Born to Run turned out to be a lie. During the summers after that, I rediscovered the innocence of Bruce’s early music and fell back in love with Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. and The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle. Darkness never gripped me in quite the same way again, because I didn’t need it to. But for all the souls still feeling lost, still chasing something in the night, still racing fast Chevys down streets of fire, searching for something they cannot name, I’d imagine Darkness on the Edge of Town remains Springsteen’s foremost masterpiece. Born to Run made immortality feel achievable, but Darkness tells you what to do when you realize it’s not. And some days, the latter is just way more comforting.