My initial reaction to this first new Springsteen album in nearly three years included at least a modicum of disappointment. Whereas his last two releases evidenced gigantic stylistic advances, the songs on the present LP could fit seamlessly on its predecessor. Perhaps the long wait had raised my expectations too high, I thought; maybe, after the incredible progress demonstrated on the earlier albums, I’d wanted Springsteen to keep growing at a rate that no one could possibly maintain for long.
Had I reviewed Darkness on the Edge of Town a week or two ago, I might have left it at that. I’m glad I didn’t, because this is one of those albums that blossoms with repeated playing.
Despite a more introspective lyrical stance and a switch in emphasis from sax to guitar, the new LP does indeed embrace the same landscape that permeated Born to Run. Springsteen remains captivated by city streets, souped-up Chevys and the secrets of the night. He continues to write majestic rock and roll anthems about those who spend their days “working in the fields till you get your back burned” and who pass their nights flirting with the edges of existence, trying to realize dreams in “a moment that just don’t come.”
As it turns out, however, the perpetuation of those basic concerns does not mean that Springsteen has become stuck in a rut. Instead, he has simply found the right voice and opted to grow within its parameters.
That growth, as I’ve noted, may take a while to fully appreciate. But it has resulted in Springsteen’s best album, which is another way of saying that few LPs of this decade by any artist can compete with its contents.
Needless to say, therefore, highlights abound. In “Badlands,” where music and lyrics form a perfect union, Springsteen concisely and effusively sums up everything that punk rock has tried to say for years. The soulful “Adam Raised a Cain,” meanwhile, describes a father-son bond with one of the most scorching vocals I’ve ever heard. I’m also wild about Danny Federici’s organ on the superb “Factory”; the paraphrase of Martha and the Vandellas in the melancholic “Racing in the Street”; the manic chord progressions that help to transport us to the hidden world of “Candy’s Room”; and the determination that emanates from “Prove It All Night.”
Then there’s the eloquent title cut, where a hill “on the edge of town” serves as a metaphor for wherever lives are “on the line” and “dreams are found and lost.” The whole album focuses on places like this, and Springsteen, who promises to be “on that hill with everything I got,” means just what he says. Come along and hear for yourself.