Every Monday for the next two months we’ll be posting an exclusive excerpt from my eBook Glory Days: Springsteen’s Greatest Albums, which analyzes eight of Springsteen’s most groundbreaking albums and then argues which one should be considered “the greatest.” This week, a selection from the chapter on Darkness on the Edge of Town:
On side 1, “Racing in the Street” was and remains a towering achievement for Springsteen. It’s a story song that takes its time to introduce its sad characters, moving from the narrator’s car – the famous “’69 Chevy with a 396” – to his friend Sonny, and eventually to the “little girl” whose dreams will die a slow, hard death. It’s unyielding in its utter realism and its depiction of the choices most of us face, one worse than the next – and it fastidiously avoids a happy ending.
Instead, it moves into an extended instrumental conclusion that’s held together by the gloriously intertwined keyboard work of Danny Federici and Roy Bittan. It’s a masterful, slow-building coda that takes the character’s hard and complicated emotions and somehow wordlessly builds on them. You can imagine the narrator and his girl, the one who “hates for just being born,” slow-dancing to it at dusk, for just those few minutes managing to stave off the pain.
That song’s counterpart on side 2, the album-closing title track, is more allegorical but equally uncompromising. Its narrator has lost his money and his marriage, and has a dark secret that he may cut loose, or that may drag him down – either way, the price of wants and dreams of any kind seems too great to bear.
Musically, like a lot of the other songs on Darkness, it builds and ebbs, then builds again, the thump of Garry Tallent’s bass giving way to Weinberg’s masterful, deliberately punctuated percussion and Bittan’s powerful piano. Through it all, Springsteen yells and grunts – “huh!” – and his distant groan is the last voice you hear as the album fades.
But maybe even more telling are the songs that follow “Racing” and lead into “Darkness.” First, “The Promised Land” picks up where “Badlands” leaves off, its hero promising that he’s “gonna take charge,” and sounding like he means it when he talks of taking a knife to the pain in his heart. And “Prove It All Night,” the album’s penultimate track, comes closest to breaking Springsteen’s promise to leave the album bereft of love songs. That edict benefited Darkness as a whole, but at the same time it serves to make “Prove It” even more resonant in its faith in the redemptive power of love and human relationships. It argues that such redemption is possible if you want it enough to take it – and that it can be worth the price if you do.