Genre: Rock, Heartland Rock
Preceded by: Born to Run (1975)
Followed by: The River (1980)
Related to: not available yet
I always had my doubts about people who cherish some kind of blind faith in an unassailable higher power. Whether it’s some teenager with a petrified glance into the deep nothing at a young Christians meeting, the stern ideologist that defends the healing power of the free market until his death, or people proudly risking their lives for the flag. Because of completely enigmatic reasons, I always suspected Springsteen fans of some mild form of this faith. However, driving a couple of miles, listening some music and having some beers always appeared to me as a more respectable way to overcome your tragic situation than killing other people.
The sixties just met their boundaries when Springsteen gets his first recording contract in 1972, signing with Columbia. The message that Messenger Bruce came to bring, is already told on his debut album (Greetings from Ashbury Park N.J. 1973): Springsteen is Jersey, and life can be tough out there. Just like its hastily released successor, it barely had any success, opposite to his numerous long live gigs throughout the region, ever injected with loads of energy. Messenger Bruce succeeds to absorb his growing amount of disciples into his story during these gatherings, but struggles in the studio due to his ambition to create the next Astral Weeks or first Desire. This is the point where he gets his first handshake from above, as he soon realizes that he just has to put that awesome live sound on a record. Thanks to an enormous production, he majestically succeeds with Born to Run (1975), but it was probably the endless tour that followed (because of a trial with manager Mike Appel, prohibiting him to record new material) that made him aware of the divine touch: such a muscled sound asks for a straight, in your face message.
It was the same exhausting tour (considering this his second handshake) that prevented him to become a victim of uninspired reproduction, withdrawing right after this trial (and the tour) to a farm in Jersey. Right there he observed the small world he grew up in, including the tough life of his parents. So, although Darkness on the Edge of Town may have a less bombastic sound than its predecessor (it’s basically all about the guitar-piano combo), it definitely wasn’t a revolutionary switch of style in Springsteen’s career. It was just the next step in the refinement of his golden touch on Born to Run: while society was creating more ‘losers’ than ‘winners’, Springsteen succeeded to appeal to both, just like religion serves to overcome your problems, as well as to legitimate your lack of problems.
Just like throughout his complete discography, he pushes his fans between despondency and hope on the album. It results in a well-balanced record, strongly tied together by the granite bookends on both sides. The strong songs in between are especially the three autobiographical ones: ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, where Springsteen addresses his father by biblical imagery (which was about all communication there was between both at that moment), ‘Factory’, his simple but impressive narrative about the worker’s life, and above all the magnificent ‘Something in the Night’. On this track, Springsteen seemed to have left behind his careless youth and has grew wiser the hard way, more specifically by his troubles in court: “You’re born with nothing, and better off that way. Soon as you’ve got something they send someone to try and take it away.”
However, the fist is really clenched on the opening and closing tracks. Springsteen summons his followers on ‘Badlands’ to stop complaining, to stop waiting, but to just make something out of it, after all, it’s no shame to be alive. Sounds simple, but a lot better when you disseminate it as if it were your own gospel: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything“. The fact that escapism is a serious option in this situation, is made clear on ‘Racing in the Street’: even if you’re living a miserable life with a shitty job and a desperate relationship, there’s always a way to escape, in this case through street racing. The song in that way continues Springsteens’s ode to a man’s urge for freedom that was set in on Born to Run: “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”.
Side 2 starts with a boom on ‘The Promised Land’, in which problems are faced and one is ready to eliminate them for once and for all. It was probably again Springsteens’ own hopeless situation that preceded the album that served as an inspiration: not being able to record a new album and to do what he wanted to do. The album is finally closed by its title track, being the sequel to ‘Racing in the Street’. The barriers that were on the path to the ultimate destiny are still being shaken off at that point, he just cut himself loose from everything that used to stop him and is ready to go all the way now. Bring on the darkness.
1. Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna (Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert, 1998)
Famous live sounds of the master, from probably rock music’s most famous bootleg. As a result of his motorcycle accident that followed 2 months after finishing this world tour, it was one of Dylans last live perfomances until 1974. Dylan was backed by the Hawks, who kept him company during Dylans recovery in Big Pink and lined up again (as The Band) in that following tour of ’74, which was released on Before The Flood, another geat live album.
2. The Beatles –Yer Blues (White Album, 1968)
The best way to bypass your insecurity about something still remains acting like everything you’re doing is just one big parody, and before you can realize it everything you did ends up to be a smashing masterpiece. The combination of the ‘I want to die’ lyric with the oompah sounds and the terrific guitar solo makes this track one of Lennon’s most fascinating contributions to the White Album, on which it resides perfectly in all its nudity.
3. The Smashing Pumpkins – Thru The Eyes of Ruby (Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, 1995)
Bombastic Pumpkins at their asolute peak, with Mellon Collie being the ultimate cocktail of riff & melody. Luckily, and as always on this double album, the guitars dominate the second part of this song. Not very surprising by the way, as approximately 70 guitar tracks were used on this song. Quarrels with your bandmates seem inevitable at some point.
4. Bruce Springsteen – Further On (Up the Road) (The Rising, 2002)
Uptempo drums-driven intro, ultimate stadium voice: the striking come-back of The Boss. Springsteen had been on a 7 year hiatus and it was his first collaboration with the E-Street Band in 18 years. The Rising was Springsteen’s response to 9/11, but in fact it was just the next episode in the whole Springsteen-saga, in which the high priest repeatedly offers hope to his most dedicated followers during gigantic mass gatherings. Good album (just a little too much fillers?).
5. The White Stripes – I’m Slowly Turning Into You (Icky Thump, 2007)
From their sixth and final album: a rough song, with screaming guitars and a pumping organ. According to Jack White himself, an album about ‘being really happy’. What is there to add?
6. Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant (Sun Giant, 2008)
Must have been the greatest contrast in clearness the shuffle could come up with. Both fans of Dylan and Neil Young, Robin Pecknold and Kyler Skjelset joined forces to start one of the best things that happened to popular music during the last decade. They delivered two very strong albums, treated us on some really marvelous folk classics (like ‘Drops in the River’ on this EP) and easily equalize the sound of some of the seventies’ most famous Westcoast choirs. Pecknold apparently suffers from social anxiety, and the fact he only hangs out with his bandmates offers us hope regarding the release of that long expected third album.
7. Cloud Nothings – Wasted Days (Attack On Memory, 2012)
Kings of Leon guitar intro? Green Day drums riff? Foo Fighters maybe? Wait, and your patience will be rewarded when echoes of Ride are coming through and it all turns into one big power trip. It all stems from the brain of Dylan Baldi, who made up numerous fictitious bands to place ‘their’ music on MySpace and find out whether or not somebody would appreciate it. One of those bands was Cloud Nothings, so just like Tame Impala and the early Grizzly Bear, it also started as a one guy project, that would only consist of a full band when playing live. This album (produced by Steve Albini), was the first one recorded with that live line-up.
8. The Kinks – Fancy (Face To Face, 1966)
Hypnotizing song full of eastern influences and the ultimate sixties voice of Ray Davies, somehow resembling Bowie and even a mopish Robert Plant here. Face to Face was the beginning of a dazzling period for the band, thanks to Davies’ nervous and physical breakdown preceding its release, as a lot of new songs that ended up on the album were written during his recuperation. Davies however continued to struggle, as that very new album (well, and the alcohol I prudently suppose) delivered him another bunch of headaches. Davies was not allowed by the record label to connect the songs with various sound effects as he intended and the psychedelic looking album sleeve was not at all to his satisfaction. Absolute fan.
9. Neil Young – Shock and Awe (Living with War, 2006)
Another old god with some more recent work, another anti-war one. Young’s lyrics and musical note are however not at all comparable to those of Springsteen: Neil is not here to give you hope, he wants to pour the incovienenth truth down your throath and asks you how it tastes. It’s an approach I appreciate, just like the way Young offered his album: it was released on the internet, but only as a whole, not as separate tracks. No direct and easy to digest consumption, but only the complete message.
10. Brian Eno – Another Green World (Another Green World, 1975)
This title track of Brian Eno’s third album, with a soft, rippling piano in the background, is the perfect soundtrack for that first spring morning. The window cautiously opens itself a little bit.
1. Guns n’ Roses – Breakdown (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Lyrically, GNR had obviously grown up on this album, moving away from the juvenile drugs anthems that dominated their previous work. But also musically, the band was in fact at its peak on this album, containing some very strong rock songs. This one qualifies for mediocrity, but also manages to surprise with a country intro followed by a proggy piano. LA chemists that reinjected mainstream rock music with the demonic and shabby rock ‘n roll from the Stones, and like many predecessors, collapsed by withdrawing to the studio.
2. Kate Bush – L’Amour Looks Something Like You (The Kick Inside, 1978)
Although it was already announced many, many times during the preceding years by the record labels, it was only during the late seventies that the sales of records started to stagnate. That must have been the reason for EMI to completely squeeze this album, for example by including some sexy posters of the then only 19 years old Kate Bush. A little bit paradoxical of course, as Bush should have represented the emancipation of women in rock music by becoming the first woman to reach number 1 in the singles charts with ‘Wuthering Heights’ as well as the first woman at the top of the album charts with The Kick Inside. No surprise Bush started her own label after the forced follow-up album to stay in control over her own work.
3. Jefferson Airplane – Triad (Crown of Creation, 1968)
The previous song could at least be called slightly sexually fueled, this one simply describes the story of a threeway relationship written by David Crosby himself. Although The Byrds could hardly been called conservative, they rejected the song for being too daring after which Grace Slick gratefully accepted the gift. Jefferson Airplane, just like The Byrds, did not have any hitsingle success anymore for some time at that point, due to numerous radio station bans because of supposed drugs references. However, just like The Byrds, it continued to deliver some good albums, like this one. The song reminds of the original folk roots of the band and is in that way representative for the album, on which psychedelic rock slowly starts to peel into the country rock that would be dominant on the last real album of the original band: Volunteers. That album also had to face numerous radio bans in the liberal US, this time not because of drugs references but for, let’s say, ‘political’ reasons.
4. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Gloomy (Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1968)
Maybe one of those bands from the same area that was somehow responsible for the change in course of the group mentioned above. At their own turn, they still propagate some psychedelic elements on their debut album, well illustrated by some long instrumental jams like this one and break-through single ‘Susie Q’, that got CCR some fame in the Bay Area. Not to forget the album sleeve that makes clear that CCR was willing to ride the psychedelic wave a little.
5. Blind Faith – Do What You Like (Blind Faith, 1969)
One year later, at the other side of the ocean: blues rock is still king, but there’s also a wind blowing from another direction: prog rock. Just like in California, the own sound, in this case the muscled bass-percussion combo, is mingled with the new rising sound, witnessing the elaborate, Genesis-echoes from the near future by Steve Winwood on keyboards. Just like their prog colleagues, Blind Faith principally grabbed ships full of cash in the US by becoming a gigantic stadium act. Disbanded afterwards.
6. Islands –Volcanoes (Return to the Sea, 2006)
Recording in the drummer’s bedroom, intro containing a telephone conversation, all pretty indie for sure. Unfortunately it can’t really compete with peers and countrymen like Sunset Rubdown, Apostle of Hustle and Arcade Fire. A little snooty.
7. Radiohead – Morning Mr. Magpie (The King of Limbs, 2011)
If I ever wanna hear about a ‘Third Way’ again, its Radiohead’s one. Clearly echoes Thom Yorke’s soloalbum, but more exuberantly dressed thanks to the electric guitar riff and lots of other reworked ornaments. Courtesy of Johnny Greenwood.
8. Lambchop – Breath Deep (I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips, 1994)
Kurt Wagner addressing you on a (apparently) way underrated debut albm. Many folk and country out there, well illustrated by the acoustic intro of this song. Lambchop’s line-up has been altered many, many times, but Wagner obviously forms the heart of this band, with one of the best senses of understatement ever heard.
9. The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar (Sticky Fingers, 1971)
Opening track and lead single of what is considered by some music professors as one of the best albums of all-time; sleeve designed by Andy Warhol (the Stones were artistically freed after breaking up with Decca Records) and riff ripped by Dandy Warhols. Whether the song was about Marsha Hunt or Claudia Lennear, old pictures of both are worthy of some research.
10. Jethro Tull – For a Thousand Mothers (Stand Up, 1969)
Perhaps the crown juwel on this album, that definitely pushed Tull in the middle of the earlier mentioned prog wave. Just like elsewhere on the album, captain Anderson refers to his relationship with his parents, while his flute sounds more aggressive than ever. The album reached number one in the UK in September 1969, to be removed from that position by… Blind Faith.
1. Sigur Rós – Með blóðnasir (Takk… , 2005)
Faltering start and angel harmonies, that has to be Iceland’s finest: last time I saw a train, this time my nose bleeds. Sigur Rós kind of started off slowly, debuting three years after being founded with Von (1997, Hope). A real good beginning came with the break-through second album two years later, opening some doors for them, like releasing an album containing eight untitled tracks sung in a made-up language. Takk… became their fourth album, blending the previous two and featuring three vigorous singles.
2. Grizzly Bear – Ready, Able (Veckatimest, 2009)
New York indie quartet that originally started as (singer/keyboardplayer) Ed Droste’s solo project. Not seeing himself develop any further as a singer-songwriter, he transformed Grizzly Bear into a classic rock line-up on the second album: Yellow House (2006). They quickly developed their characteristic sound, injecting vocal harmonies based folk rock with a little bit of psychedelia by using some unorthodox electronic instruments. No wonder they were signaled by Radiohead, for whom they (just like Sigur Rós) opened a couple of shows during the summer of 2008. After this tour they started to record this third album, named after an uninhabited island and becoming a great success, this being one of the strongest tracks on it.
3. Echo & the Bunnymen – Pride (Crocodiles, 1980)
Sleazy sixties garage guitars in the intro, but the computerized rhythm of the drums transports us twenty years ahead: Echo & the Bunnymen. It was one of the two bands that rose from the remnants of A Shallow Madness, following a dispute between members Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch. Cope transformed ASM into The Teardrop Explodes and McCulloch formed Echo & the Bunnymen (1978) with a guitarist, bass player and drum computer. However, by the time this debut (produced by professional wacko Bill Drummond and The Teardrop Explodes’ David Balfe) was recorded the band was already joined by drummer Pete de Freitas.
4. The Beatles – Help! (Help!, 1965)
Most famous opening and title track from the album on which The Beatles left their youth behind them by retrieving from their pop comfort zone and starting to incorporate influences from other artists and genres: the solid bridge towards Rubber Soul. The up-tempo song was initially meant to become a sober ballad written by a truly depressive John Lennon and in this way it can be viewed as a first minor step towards his later expressive work.
5. Bob Dylan – Isis (Desire, 1976)
We prolong our stay at the penthouse of rock’s treasure chamber with Dylan’s 17th album. 1975 brought along the release of Blood on the Tracks as well as The Basement Tapes and the start of Dylan’s famous ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’-tour. Just before the start of this tour, Dylan had finished the recordings of Desire (featuring most of the supporting musicians on that tour) and released it in between of the two legs of the tour. One of those musicians was ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, who had brought Dylan into contact with Jacques Levy, a psychologist, theatre director and… Dylan’s songwriting partner on Desire. ‘Isis’ was their first collaboration: a story about a man who leaves the mysterious Isis, goes treasure hunting, returns without loot and on top of that has to bury his deceased travelling-companion, completely in The Band’s ‘The Weight’-style.
6. Talking Heads – Swamp (Stop Making Sense, 1984)
Live recording from the song that originally appeared on the band’s fifth studio album Speaking in Tongues (1983), that was supported by the famous ‘Stop Making Sense’-tour. Speaking in Tongues ultimately succeeded Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece Remain in Light after a three years hiatus. During this period, Frantz and Weymouth kept recording with the Tom Tom Club while Brian Eno went his own way. No reunion possible in the future.
7. Joni Mitchell – My Old Man (Blue, 1971)
Second track on Mitchell’s magnum opus, with only Joni herself on vocals and piano. As can be induced from some lyrics on the album, some songs were written by Mitchell during a vacation around Europe she had after breaking up with Westcoast partner Graham Nash. Back in California, she was dumped by another usual suspect, James Taylor, after which Blue was recorded. Taylor even plays guitar on some of the tracks, just like Stephen Stills of course.
8. Metallica – Fade to Black (Ride the Lightning, 1984)
Another blue cover, with Metallica’s first attempt to make a power ballad, featuring an opening riff that would later inspire a lot of emo-shit that lacked Metallica’s hard core. The song itself would have inspired a lot of suicides, as Ulrich and Hetfield would have been obsessed by death at the time of recording. Whether some stolen gear and getting kicked out by your manager after drinking all his liquor is a legitimate reason for suicide or not, it still remains my favorite Metallica album.
9. Tool – Swamp Song (Undertow, 1993)
Another Swamp, from Tool’s debut album this time. It must have been difficult for an album with such unorthodox song structures to compete with the booming grunge wave at that time but luckily K-Mart and Wal-Mart came to the rescue with the creation of some controversy about a couple of sleeve pictures. Noteworthy anecdote from the support tour: when Tool found out they had to play at a venue owned by Scientology’s Ron Hubbard, MJ Keenan ‘spent most of the show baa-ing like a sheep at the audience’. Gotta love them.
10. The Flaming Lips – The Observer (The Soft Bulletin, 1999)
Instrumental from a very sweet album full of pieces of candy. Band that went a long way from the harder alternative rock in the eighties and early nineties to the ultimate pop sound on this ninth album. Not to mention its predecessor you had to play simultaneously on four separate stereo systems…
1. Steve Earle – Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left (Guitar Town, 1986)
Although sounding like the Bakersfield sound with a small touch of Elvis Costello, it’s a real Texan singing here. Steve Earle spent his youth following his idol Townes Van Zandt throughout the Lone Star State and seemed to remain dubious about whether to stay there or move to Nashville, Tennessee for the rest of his life. This hesitation was translated into his music as being a mix of pure country and a rather raw Springsteenesk sound (Earle was in fact the working man people thought Springsteen was: having a daytime job and playing music at night). 1986 finally brought Earle his break-through with this debut album, recorded in Nashville and delivering two country hits (title track and this song). Later Earle received a Grammy for his anti-Iraq war album The Revolution Starts Now, with the title track being used for a TV commercial of… General Motors.
2. Sonic Youth – Tuff Gnarl (Sister, 1987)
Same era, same country, totally different planet. Founded in 1981 after Thurston Moore joined his later wife Kim Gordon’s band, quickly accompanied by guitarist Lee Ranaldo. Like often, the position of the drummer would remain unstable for a few years, on the noisy and experimental debut album Confusion Is Sex (1983, moderate success in Europe) as well as the dark and gloomy Bad Moon Rising (1985). Not coincidentally, they are finally recognized in their home country with their third album EVOL (1986), after Steve Shelley had become the unchallenged drummer and Sonic Youth definitely opts for alternative rock with a melodic touch. This fourth album, which I consider not a highlight, was recorded during EVOL’s supporting tour. However, everything (even the introduction of a loose concept) pointed to the fact that the band was working his way towards another peak, which was released the next year.
3. Sufjan Stevens – Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run (Illinois, 2005)
Beta Band, Broken Social Scene? It’s the instrumental closing track of Sufjan Stevens’ most notorious album, in contrast with the works of his mentioned indie-colleagues containing a serious dose of pop and baroque. Illinois is full of affluent pop arrangements, shaping the musical background for lots of places, people and historic events that took place in that state, and all composed with instruments played by the prodigy himself. Already on his debut album (A Sun Came, 2000), he brings together 14 instruments. After giving electronic influences a try on his second album, he starts his so-called ‘Fifty States Project’, an ambitious idea that (just like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley-plan) quickly goes through the shredder. Instead, after Michigan (2003) and Illinois, Stevens accepts an even greater challenge by trying to appreciate Christmas. Can’t call him a coward.
4. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Our House (Déjà-Vu, 1970)
Third single from the album after ‘Woodstock’ (Mitchell) and ‘Teach Your Children’ (Nash), another super soft song from Nash written when he lived with Joni Mitchell in LA’s Laurel Canyon. Contrary to the other album tracks, which were rerecorded numerous times until the four excellences considered them good enough to release them (this way easily lifting the total studio recording time over 500 hours), this song was written in about an hour according to Nash.
5. Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends Theme (Bookends, 1968)
Another couple of flawless harmonies, in the version that closes side A on this record. The album is often called the most ‘intellectual’ one from the duo, and the sober, nerdy album cover is completely in line with that idea. Paul Simon was struck by a writer’s block after the release of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), but came back with this half concept-album, depicting the course of life from childhood till old age on side A. It became a musical triumph especially for Simon, who, thanks to outdated contract terms (the label paid for the sessions, assuming that a folk duo will never cost that much) chose to push all limits. Completely in CSNY-style, Simon brought the recordings to perfection, not shying away from spending 50 studio hours on a barely two minutes lasting song. Still, because of the two different sides, the album sounds a little incoherent: why not use both sides for the concept? Did the label want ‘Mrs. Robinson’ to be on it to earn back the high production costs?
6. Led Zeppelin – The Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
Third song from the excellent fourth album, with a Celtic touch due to the mystical intro (folky Plant with mandolin). It will always remain the only Led Zeppelin song featuring a guest vocalist, Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention, in duet with Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin didn’t end up coincidentally with her, as she was considered an authority in the field of traditional British folk back then. The fact that Led Zep moved from London to a Victorian cottage in East Hampshire for the recordings of this record, will without any doubt have to do something with this revived interest in traditional folk.
7. Bruce Springsteen – Something in the Night (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
Characterizing bells and piano-intro, followed by a howling scream of the master himself: this is the real Springsteen. Just like Led Zeppelin on Headley Grange and Bob Dylan in the basement of Big Pink, Springsteen withdrew to a farm in New Jersey after the success of Born to Run and the lingering conflict with his former manager Mike Appel. That’s why it lasted three years before Springsteen came up with the successor of his big break-through album, which was considerably less bombastic (as reflected by the sober album cover). Most of the material from the sessions by the way didn’t end up on the album, but was lent out to other artists or released on The River (1980). Luckily this third track was not rejected, as it remains one of his unrivalled classics.
8. The Beatles – Rocky Racoon (White Album, 1968)
Of course The Beatles also withdrew to distant places now and then, like in 1968: it was down in Rishikesh, India where most of the material for the White Album was written. Just like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, this album meant the beginning of the end for them. The unlimited studio time in London took away all the pressure to play together and the constant discontentedness with each other’s songs led to the point of Ringo leaving the band. In that point of view, it may not be surprising that the four of them are only heard on 16 of the total of 30 tracks. This song is obviously one from McCartney (‘Gideon’s Bible’…), about a triangular relationship that seems to stem directly from the Deadwood script.
9. Nick Drake – Place to Be (Pink Moon, 1972)
A guy that was later imitated by numerous less authentic and less talented songwriters. Also a guy that liked to withdrew himself, as Drake locked himself in his sober house in London after the poor reviews of his previous album, Bryter Layter (1970). This album became as sober as the environment it was written in, without backing band and with only Drake himself on vocals and acoustic guitar. Despite the legends that rose afterwards, Drake would have been very proud of the album, which was nevertheless followed by his suicide two years later, at the age of 26.
10. The Twilight Sad – Cold Days from the Birdhouse (Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, 2007)
Contagious Scottish vocals from indie rockers The Twilight Sad, consisting of the trio Graham (responsible for the accent), MacFarlane (walls of sound, also producer of the album) and Devine. This is the opening track of their debut album, that was (contrary to some work mentioned above) recorded in only three days. Cheers.