A corporate radio pragramming philosophy says there is no such thing as public anticipation of an album. The idea is that most impatience comes from within the industry. Radio people, record executives and promoters wait for big acts to produce new products. The audience cares only after the record is released.
Occasionally, though, an artist sparks enough interest to prompt consumers to ask about an upcoming work: a new Stevie Wonder, a new Frank Sinatra, a new Bruce Springsteen.
After three years of court battles, concert tours and a record warehouse workers' strike, there is a new Springsteen album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Whether it's been worth the wait can only be answered over time, but there's no doubt Springsteen is still miles above most performers currently playing the circuit.
An irony is that listening to "Darkness on the Edge of Town" reminds you of some of Springsteen's best-known proteges. It's not unusual to note that a certain phrase sounds like Graham Parker or Bob Seger and then realize it's really Parker and Seger who now sound like Springsteen. The album also reveals Springsteen's own roots, most noticeably his debt to the early Elvis Presley. On this album, Bruce often uses Elvis's method of slurring a lyric for emphasis. There's also the continuing tribute to phil Spector and even a hint of the Animals.
Interesting point about the influence of the Animals. During his lawsuit against former manager Mike Appel, Springsteen was forbidden to perform any material. He added the Animals' old hit "It's My Life" to his live repertoire, turning it into a personal treatise. On the new album, the song "Badlands" uses the same recurring riff (speeded up a bit) and melodic base as "It's My Life." "Badlands" is one of the stronger tracks, showcasing a more tempered rock style and the seamless unity of the E Street Band, intact since "Born to Run."
While the uptempo songs here are slightly less frantic than the surge of "Rosalita" or the rush of "Born to Run," Springsteen's intensity is overpowering on the slower tunes. "Racing in the Street" and the title cut build from Roy Bitton's melancholy piano into stirring stories of bitterness and pain. "Racing in the Street" stays musically calm while Springsteen sings "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."
"Darkness on the Edge of Town" becomes a full-blown production in the chorus and nearly explodes at the closing lines: "I'll be on that hill with everything I got / Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be round / In the darkness on the edge of town."
Both "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Streets of Fire" straddle the line between urgency and stridency and how you respond to them will probably depend as much on your own mood as on Springsteen's.
"Factory" and "Something in the Night" extend the record's catalog of slower ballads filled with pessimism. "Something in the Night" may be the most moving vision on the album and also the bleakest: "Nothing is forgotten or forgiven / When it's your last time around / I got stuff running 'round my head / That I just can't live down."
Even the faster numbers are tinged with sadness. The lyrics of "The Promised Land," "Candy's Room," and "Prove It All Night" (the advance single) cut through the layers of sound and leave one wondering if Springsteen is really as down as he sounds.
All this soul-searching makes for an emotional, stirring work. Like Paul Simon, Springsteen is in tune with his audience. Simon talks to the suburban middle class and nouveau intelligentsia; Springsteen works the other side of the tracks.
Like Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" may strike many people as too depressing. Yet that criticism misses the point. The album contains some masterful compositions that require several listenings and there are individual performing gems. Springsteen's guitar solo in "Streets of Fire" may be the best break he's ever taken and Clarence Clemons' saxophone fills and Max Weinber's drumming are so consistent that they're nearly taken for granted.
These pieces also mark a shift away from the chock-full-o'-tricks production displayed on "Born to Run" and toward a cleaner, sparer sound. The music wall is still there, but Springsteen finds it much easier to scale. He has quit pulling out all the studio stops and allowed his songs to stand more nakedly and on their own.
It's difficult to say who should get the credit. "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is officially produced by Springsteen and former "Rolling Stone Magazine" writer Jon Landau ("I have seen rock and roll future . . ."). However, there is also "production assistance" by Miami Steve Van Zandt (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes) and the album was "recorded by" Jimmy Iovine (Patti Smith). In this case, too many cooks did not spoil the broth.
Word from insiders before the record's release was that Columbia must sell an awful lot of Springsteen albums to get back its investment. Court and studio fees in the three years it's taken for 10 new titles have run outrageously high. Whether enough sell depends on a public as unpredictable as it is loose with its record money. Whether the album is worthwhile is already established. "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is a major work by a major artist. Pop records don't get much more important than that.