The stakes are high in Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The characters aren’t always literally fighting for their lives, but they are absolutely fighting to protect their vitality, their joy, their life-force, from a world constantly encroaching on them. The stakes aren’t life or death, but they are life versus death.
“Badlands” lays out the thesis. Its narrator faces danger on every side — he’s caught in a crossfire, with trouble in the heartland looming, while he gets his back burned working in the fields, feeling a head-on collision smashing in his guts, man. All these forces combined make up the metaphorical Badlands in which he lives, constantly trying to grind him into meaninglessness. But his response is defiant — he reaches for love, faith, and hope, moves from fears to dreams, and embraces the notion that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
That’s the triumph of the life force, right there. Springsteen and his band imbue the sentiment with anthemic power — driving rock and a passionate vocal. “The Promised Land” extends “Badlands”‘s musical approach as well as its themes, with a narrator who is pretty much identical to the “Badlands” guy. He works all day, assailed by feelings of helplessness, pain, and despair. He sees himself facing down a tornado ready to blow away his dreams… except.
Except he keeps returning to his core, and it is a core of faith. Not religious faith (though some of it is cloaked in religious language), but the belief that things can get better. That the dreams that get blown away are in fact lies if they don’t have the faith to stand their ground. That those dreams and lies deserve to get blown away, because their falseness otherwise stands ready to break his heart. That despite the storm that threatens him, he can drive straight into it and survive, protected by his belief in a better life, and a better future — the promised land.
Every song on the album plays out some version of this battle — death vs. life, darkness vs. light. Sometimes it’s in a romantic context, as in the breathtaking “Candy’s Room”, where the darkness in her hall is the sadness in her face, but she finds hidden worlds alive inside when she’s with her boy. “Prove It All Night” is the companion to this song, in which the life force is decidedly erotic, and the narrator kisses his lover to seal their fates, taking them into the world where they can live… and die.
Sometimes the darkness gets the upper hand, as in “Something In the Night”, where the characters lose everything they love, and end up “running burned and blind.” Or “Factory”, which puts death in the eyes of its workers, sending them home to pass their pain along to somebody else. That pairs directly with “Adam Raised A Cain”, in which “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain”, and his son finds himself having to rebel or die.
I seem to be finding a lot of pairings on this album, so let me suggest one more: the bookends of “Badlands” and “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.” “Badlands” feels like the beginning of a life, with a narrator full of hope and fire, but “Darkness” feels like the end, its narrator looking back with regret at the wife, the money, and the life he lost. The darkness keeps rising up, that anti-life that may even be a little seductive, and like many of the characters on this album, he’s ready to “pay the cost” for being seduced by it.
The most interesting, though, of all these, is “Racing In The Street,” in which both the stakes and the narrator change partway through the song. We start out with lyrics that feel like they could have been plucked from a Beach Boys record, but sung slowly and gravely. Bruce here is engaging with a long rock and roll tradition of fast cars as symbols of freedom and joy, but undercutting it with the tone of the song, much like Tracy Chapman would ten years later. Then he makes the comparison explicit by quoting Martha And The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” twice, but with a style that is diametrically opposed to Motown exuberance.
Once again, living and dying are on the line:
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
Then go racin’ in the street
The narrator finds his joy and vitality in these street races, his pride in shutting up and shutting down his competitors. He even finds love in these races, winning his girl after winning a race against her date. But then we learn something unexpected. She cries herself to sleep at night now. She worries about his safety. She stares off alone into the night, deeply unhappy and alone while he goes out racing.
And when he finally figures this out, the narrator leaves behind his world of “shut-down strangers and hot rod angels” to focus on what really matters in his life: love. He puts the power of his engine into the service of taking the two of them somewhere they can find redemption and a fresh start. For all the exultation of songs like “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night”, I would argue that the greatest triumph of life on the album happens at the end of “Racing In The Street.”
I’ve been focused on the songwriting of this album, because that’s what I connect to the most, but before I close, let me just add one more page to my already extensive Roy Bittan fan book. Sure, the entire band is wonderful, and Bruce’s vocals are great, sometimes bordering on scary great. But for me the piano feels like the emotional core so often. Can you imagine the beginning of “Prove It All Night” without Bittan? Or “Badlands”? Or “Something In The Night”? Or “Candy’s Room”? I sure can’t. Even songs that don’t feature the piano so prominently, like “The Promised Land”, benefit hugely from the beautiful underpinning that The Professor provides. Springsteen’s lyrics are the star of this album, but they wouldn’t shine anywhere near as brightly without the brilliant Roy Bittan.