Contrary to what many New Jerseyans think, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run is not the best rock album of all time. While it is almost a masterpiece and a veritable greatest hits album in its own right, it comes across as excessive. It's even harder to consider it the greatest of all time when it might not even be the best in the Boss's catalog. The Garden State Gods are already clamoring, but as sacrilegious as it may be to say this, Darkness on the Edge of Town is better than Born to Run.
Sure, Born to Run was Bruce's real breakthrough, and later The River was his first huge commercial success. But in between, amidst massive legal troubles, Springsteen put together the fiery and dark Darkness, in which he would provide emotional anthems for his heartland fan base.
While the characters of Born to Run have some glimmer of hope to wish upon, there is little to be optimistic about on Darkness. From the first track, "Badlands," one knows that the characters on this album are in dire straits. The piano lead-in is upbeat and serves as a driving way to open the album. But once the lyrics and doubled-up vocals hit, the angst cuts through.
"Badlands" is for the working class, broadcasting the message that working hard is the only way to get ahead, yet the blue-collared masses will still be working the same jobs their whole life. While Born to Run required extreme instrumental parts and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, "Badlands," like the rest of Darkness, is able to announce everyman's anxiety in a more low-key manner, which proves to be more effective and meaningful than Born's bombast.
This understated ode to the blue collar life runs rampant through the album, threading its way through "Factory," "Promised Land," and "Prove it All Night." While "Factory" is easily forgettable filler, the latter two are fan favorites and have been mainstays in Bruce's live shows since 1978. The opening harmonica riff on "Promised Land" has become one of the most recognizable intros from the Boss's canon, and its lyrics are the only twinkle of faith left in the narrator's eyes. Although clearly laden with anguish, lines like "Explode and tear this whole town apart/Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart/Find somebody itching for something to start" at least give the impression that maybe something, however drastic, can be done.
Lyrically, the only weak song is "Candy's Room," as it doesn't fit with any of the messages of the album nor is particularly poetic or brilliant like most of Bruce's lyrics. The shoddy songwriting is unfortunate because the music is very energetic and builds up to a very powerful bridge. Had "Candy's Room" been accompanied by better lyrics, it could have emerged as one of the best of the album, or at least served to better fortify an already exceptional effort.
Even though the troubles of the working class define the album, several of the songs are devoted to the idea of driving. "Something in the Night," "Racing in the Street," "Streets of Fire," and the title track all feature driving or racing references and are almost extensions of the much-heralded title track from Born to Run. If one thought the wails on "Backstreets" were the definition of pain, they haven't listened to "Something in the Night," on which Bruce moans over Roy Bittan's melancholy piano part.
Bittan gets a lot of solo time on the album but is most notably featured on "Racing in the Street," one of the most heartbreaking yet overlooked songs ever penned by Springsteen. With agonizing lyrics (see: "But all her pretty dreams are torn/She stares off alone into the night/With the eyes of one who hates for just being born"), the perfect combination of piano and organ, and a chorus just barely haunting in the background, "Racing in the Street" comes through as the finest of the album.
Darkness is not without its flaws, and perhaps the biggest complaint that Boss devotees express is that the record has subpar sound quality. While the quality is standard for 1978, Springsteen remains among the very few artists that have yet to go back and remaster their catalogs. Although it is not quite the AM radio effect heard on Nebraska, it takes a lot of fiddling with your equalizer to get a superior sound from the record.
In the end, is Darkness of the Edge of Town better than Born to Run? This might be the only place to find a New Jerseyan who thinks so. If you want an overpowering, overdone, oft-praised "masterpiece" with false hopes of escaping the rat race of life, then Born to Run is your album. But if you want reality, sung for the people by one of their own (he wasn't always the Boss and he wasn't always a millionaire), told through a straight-forward, minimalist soundtrack, and featuring lyrics that bite through like never before or since, then Darkness on the Edge of Town is for you.