Stripping Away Everything but the Gospel: An Advent-Tinged Reflection on Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town

Bruce Springsteen, Haddonfield, NJ, 1978

Look, I get it. We’re all sick of “Advent.” The liturgical season of waiting may have started less than a month ago, but it feels like we’ve all been living it for the past nine months. And yet, in some sense, that’s the point. This dark wintery season is supposed to remind us of how lost and empty we are without “Christmas”—how we’re always “getting ready for Christmas day.”

I recently listened to my favorite Bruce Springsteen album for the first time in ages—his 1978 classic Darkness on the Edge of Town—and it felt so relevant to our moment that I had to share of few highlights with you. The album is a bracing brew of hard rock defiance and a dirge-like despair. It’s one of the gloomiest of his many gloomy records, and yet—to me—it perfectly captures that strange hopeful gloom of “rock-bottom,” of the waning days of Advent, of helpless longing amid the deep darkness that precedes our spiritual solstice.

In ten songs, Springsteen lays bare the false promise of just about every practical hope we might cling to, but in so doing, inadvertently clears room for us to better understand the gift of Christmas. It’s a message that cut deep for me, especially in this brutal year when so very much of what we’ve long relied upon for comfort and meaning has indeed been stripped away.

The album was the follow-up to Springsteen’s more famous Born to Run (1975), which, as one reviewer put it, was “all about escaping while you still can.” That’s a theme that sells records. Darkness, on the other hand, is about “those who stay behind”—which, in some ultimate sense, is all of us. There’s no real escape from the human condition, after all, and perhaps that’s what Springsteen himself was in the process of learning when he wrote it. Beneath the album’s woeful tales of working-class folks burned by the false promises of the American Dream (and much else), one can assume that there was also a driven young rock star channeling his own disillusionment even as his fame skyrocketed in the mid-70s.

So with all that in mind, I’d like to walk through the album and say a few words about how its best songs are speaking to me this Advent. Here are eight of my favorites in order of appearance:

1.) “Badlands”

The album opens with this full-throttle anthem of defiance. Our heroic working-class narrator finds himself “caught in a crossfire” of forces he can’t understand or influence, doubting all his hard work will ever lead anywhere, and begging a lover to help make it all right. “Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control right now,” he intones. The chorus then strikes perhaps the most determined note of the album: “We’ll keep pushing till […] these Badlands start treating us good.” But his faith is not in the American Dream anymore. It seems to be in the thrill of a woman’s love—but also, perhaps, in a more diffuse “hope” he doesn’t (or can’t) quite name. Here’s an excerpt:

You better get it straight, darling,
Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain’t satisfied, till he rules everything,
I wanna go out tonight, I wanna find out what I got

I believe in the love that you gave me,
I believe in the faith that could save me,
I believe and I hope and I pray
That someday it may raise me
Above these Badlands

This, as Rolling Stone puts it, is “a song that perfectly fits Pete Townshend’s definition of a rock anthem: ‘praying onstage.’” But over the course of the album, the (shifting) narrator’s defiant faith seems to slowly and progressively crumble in the shadow of growing desperation.

2.) “Adam Raised a Cain”

This “pile driver” of a rock song is ostensibly about one twisted father-son relationship. Springsteen apparently drew inspiration for it from both his own relationship with his father—“a withdrawn working-class guy who shared Bruce’s struggles with depression”—and Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden. But in my mind you don’t really need to read between the lines much here: This anguished song is about Original Sin—that is, the incurable “human propensity to fuck things up” and damage those we love, passing down at least some of the pain and hurt and sin from generation to generation. Here’s a taste:

You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past,
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain,
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame,
But you inherit the sins, you inherit the flames,
Adam raised a Cain

And what does Original Sin strip away from us? Our faith in ourselves—in our own ability to get things right by our own efforts. Clearly, Cain’s doomed and he knows it.

3.) “Candy’s Room”

Here’s a classic Springsteen theme for you: torturous desire. This song tells the story of a young man’s ill-fated infatuation with a tragic dame named Candy, apparently a prostitute. She offers our desperate protagonist a route to temporary escape, transcendence even, promising that “if you wanna be wild, you got a lot to learn / Close your eyes […] / [I]n the darkness, there’ll be hidden worlds that shine.” And yet, we can all see from the outset that the hope he puts in her—and in what she’s offering—is misplaced. It’s never going to fill the gaping hole of his need.

4.) “Racing in the Street”

This is probably one of my top five favorite songs ever. By anyone. It’s a perfect song. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a dirge-like ballad about the thrills of street racing and the temporary escape it offers the hard-luck characters that populate the song’s dreary landscape. Here’s Bruce: “Now 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 / And go racing in the street.” But the thrills of racing never quite add up to hope, as the song’s mournful air attests. The narrator seems to cling to a faint shred of hope as he drives off with his lover at song’s end—ostensibly in search of some kind of absolution—but the bleak backdrop makes it clear there’s no real escape here:

She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
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
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels,
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands

Beautiful. Unforgettable. Perfect. That shit just tears me up man!

5.) “The Promised Land”

If you just gave a cursory listen to this other big anthem on the album—alongside “Badlands”—you might think it was an upbeat song about the promise of the American Dream. In the first verse, the narrator almost sounds like he still believes he can “John Wayne” his way to achieving it: “Working all day in my daddy’s garage […] / Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge.” In the chorus, he adds, “Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land.” But that’s mostly just misdirection. Which “promised land,” exactly? By the second verse, it’s clear there’s something dark going on beneath the song’s upbeat veneer:

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart

The “Dream” itself seems not just to have let the man down but cursed him too. He’s left with just a heart full of pain and a generalized lust for revenge—clearly, in desperate need of the balm of the Cross. The violent, apocalyptic imagery only intensifies in the final verse:

There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted

This guy clearly hates the “Dream” at this point. There’s no hope left in it whatsoever. He’s so broken that whatever actual dream he has for America is a dark one. Whatever adult version of “a promised land” it is he keeps saying he believes in, it clearly isn’t one based in the world as it’s currently constituted. It’s one only possible through some kind of apocalyptic rebirth. If this song’s desperation doesn’t cry out for a Savior—for the Kingdom of God to come to earth—then I don’t know what does. This guy is desperate for Christmas day.

6.) “Streets of Fire”

This is another song of desolation with apocalyptic overtones. The narrator is a disaffected “loser,” “strung out” and wandering through the night down “streets of fire.” But the dominant theme here is his intense isolation and alienation from those around him:

I live now, only with strangers
I talk to only strangers
I walk with angels that have no place
And don’t look in my face

By this point, the album is moving us closer and closer to the portrait of a man—or perhaps an entire class of people—on the edge, stripped of pretty much every hope and comfort.  

7.) “Prove It All Night”

This song, as the title suggests, is ostensibly about self-justification. According to Springsteen, the inspiration for it came from a New York cabdriver he once rode with: “He was just talking about how … all your life you gotta prove something to somebody.” In the song, the narrator keeps going on about how he wants to “prove” his love to a woman—and, hint, hint, “prove it” all night long. But there’s no illusion that it’s going to amount to much. “Proving” seems to be all “that we can do” in a world where dreams remain firmly out of reach:

Everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist
There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this
But if dreams came true, ah wouldn’t that be nice
But this ain’t no dream we’re living out through tonight

Yet, there’s something disingenuous in all this as well. It’s hard not to read the narrator’s adamant need to “prove” his love—and convince the woman to give up her other dreams—as just a way to get her to put out. In that sense, the song probably doesn’t have much to do with love, actually.

8.) “Darkness on the Edge of Town”

If the album’s opening song (“Badlands”) was a guttural cry of defiance and determination amidst despair—buoyed in part by the love of a woman—by this point in the record, the despair seems to have taken over. Whatever defiance is left now feels more sinister, almost suicidal. As in “Racing in the Street,” the hard-luck narrator here once again attempts to find solace in the thrills of street racing, but there’s something dark and empty in it this time, perhaps because he’s lost the love of a woman to anchor—or distract—him. As he tells us, “I lost my money and I lost my wife / Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.” Left in the wake seems to be a new awareness of his own terrifying (human) condition:

Well everybody’s got a secret, Sonny
Something that they just can’t face
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it
They carry it with them every step that they take

Till some day they just cut it loose
Cut it loose or let it drag ’em down
Where no one asks any questions
Or looks too long in your face
In the darkness on the edge of town

The narrator’s clearly grappling with some immense burden—of hopelessness? of shame? of never being enough? of never feeling satisfied? of his own mortality? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear he can’t stand to be fully seen or known by others (or himself), and seeks escape in “the darkness.” He’s desperate and adrift, and it’s at this point we see that the street racing has taken a compulsive and self-destructive turn. Here’s the final verse:

Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I’ve got […]
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town

What “things”? Ultimate things. Things that can’t actually be found in street racing. There’s no real healing there, and he knows it, which is why it feels almost like he has a death wish.

Paradoxically, it’s this utter disillusionment that makes Darkness hopeful to me. The “darkness on the edge of town” is not so different from the darkness on the edge of Advent. The album strips away its characters’ false hopes, it spotlights the emptiness or insufficiency in everything that they might cling to—and that we all continue to cling to—that is ultimately not God. But in that sense, it beckons us towards real hope, the “unreasonable” hope of the Gospel, that sustains and gives life to the otherwise hopeless.

There’s a great line from “Badlands” that captures a theme of much of Springsteen’s early music: “I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me.” Springsteen’s characters are so often depicted in a desperate search for that kind of connection, but in Darkness at least, they end up alone and adrift, alienated from the world and themselves. For Christians, Jesus is that “face.” As Francis Spufford paraphrases, “I am the friend who will never leave you. I am the light behind the darkness.” That’s the hope of the Gospel, the hope of Christmas.

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