When Bruce Springsteen started writing and recording Darkness on the Edge of Town, he faced a daunting task. His previous album, 1975's Born to Run, had catapulted him from promising young songwriter to rock 'n' roll superstar — in October of that year, both Time and Newsweek featured him in cover stories in the same week.
Adding to the drama, a messy legal dispute between Springsteen and his managers kept him out of the recording studio for months after Born to Run and its ensuing tour — the singer refused to release any new material until the ugliness was settled, and he emerged from the battle with far greater creative control of his career. The result, though, was a three-year lapse between Born to Run’s splash and the Darkness release. By comparison, Springsteen, a prolific songwriter, had released his first three albums within 32 months.
When Darkness on the Edge of Town finally arrived in the summer of 1978, it marked a stark thematic and sonic departure for Springsteen. Gone were the heavily produced, romanticized youthful notions of endless highways and summer beach nights that populated his early recordings. The Springsteen on Darkness sang stripped-down tales of lost love, dashed hopes and the drudgery of the workaday world. It was clear: In the three years between albums, Springsteen had grown up.
That long-ago delay is now providing fresh benefits for Springsteen fans. Because of the unplanned break, the singer ended up with far more songs on his hands than he could use at the time — somewhere between 60 and 70 tunes, of which only 10 appeared on Darkness. Some of those songs — many of which have been staples at Springsteen concerts for years, though never officially released — are included on The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, a massive six-disc (three CDs, three DVDs) collection that includes a remastered version of Darkness, two discs of outtakes, two concert films and a documentary that chronicles the making of the original album. The collection goes on sale today. The Promise, which includes only the two CDs of outtakes containing 21 previously unreleased songs from the Darkness sessions, also goes on sale today.
For many of Springsteen’s fans, Darkness on the Edge of Town marks his highest accomplishment, a tight collection of rockers and ballads that never lag. Though successful, it never reached the commercial heights of Born to Run. But the story behind the Darkness album reveals what was perhaps the most interesting part of the singer’s career: Born to Run brought a meteoric rise, but sustained success was far from guaranteed. Making Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen stood at the kind of crossroads that he so often inflicts on the characters in his songs.
Six years later, Springsteen would cement his status as a rock icon with the phenomenal success of Born in the U.S.A. Sandwiched in between Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A., though, Darkness on the Edge of Town may well be his most important album: the one on which he declared who he was, and what he was about. In the new documentary, a 60-something Springsteen explains what drove him during those labored Darkness recording sessions: "More than rich, more than famous, more than happy," he says, "I wanted to be great."