Unlike a couple of Bruce Springsteen’s previous records, The River can never be called a flawless effort. Arguments are made by some that Born To Run is a perfect work. With less fervor, people have called The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle or Darkness On The Edge Of Town perfect. I’m not going to argue the degree of perfection found in any Springsteen album. But with The River, a 20-song, 83-minute behemoth of a double-disc record, there are certainly flaws. But with those flaws came yet another sign of Springsteen’s musical genius that was the most captivating part of rock and roll in the 1970s and 80s.
Springsteen originally recorded 10 songs for a record called The Ties That Bind, and that record was going to be released in late 1979. Instead of releasing that, Springsteen went back to the drawing board and wrote some darker material after penning a song called “The River.” The result was the double-disc that saw light of day in the fall of 1980. While the record didn’t have the compact and straightforward storytelling themes of Born To Runand Darkness, it does feature some of Springsteen’s most compelling songwriting.
Any fan familiar with The Boss’ work will tell you that The River is perhaps his most polarizing work. Setting aside the double release of Human Touch and Lucky Town, the batch of songs found on The River couldn’t be more varied. Constantly praised for being the middle ground between the glorious moments of Born To Run and the despair found on Darkness, The River shows rock and roll in the way Springsteen thought it should be written.
”Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life,” Springsteen said. “But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone…I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them.”
The resulting album is one that might not flow as well as previous Springsteen releases (which flowed impeccably), but a record that spawned some of the strongest single tracks of his career. The strongest single was “Hungry Heart,” which is notorious for being originally written by Springsteen for The Ramones. Instead of giving them the song, producer Jon Landau convinced Springsteen to put it on The River. Landau made a good call, as the song became Springsteen’s most successful single to date. It reached No. 5 on the U.S. pop singles chart, a catchy and danceable hit that foreshadowed some of the sounds listeners would hear on the immensely popular Born In The U.S.A.
For every upbeat number like “Hungry Heart,” “Sherry Darling,” “Two Hearts,” “Ramrod” or “Out On The Street,” Springsteen gives us a slow-tempo ballad like “Independence Day” or the brilliantly orchestrated “Point Blank.” Songs like “Stolen Car” (which foreshadowed Tunnel Of Love), “Drive All Night” and closer “Wreck On The Highway” are much slower tracks that must be appreciated for their melodies and special construction. Songs like these are where Springsteen’s words cut deepest, with weaving lyricism making an impact when delivered over calmer tides. “Stolen Car” is a vastly underrated song, as Springsteen’s personal, slowly delivered lyricism casts an image of a troubled youth: “At first I thought it was just restlessness that would fade as time went by and our love grew deep / In the end it was something more I guess that tore us apart and made us weep / And I’m driving a stolen car down on Eldridge Avenue / Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do.”
”The Ties That Bind” is a suitable opener for the record, a guitar-led number that features a good example of the snare-heavy drumming from Max Weinberg that paces the uptempo tracks. “Two Hearts” has gone on to be a hit at live concerts, with E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt commanding the call-and-return vocals as the second “heart” with Springsteen. “Out On The Street” is a classic example of a track that Springsteen seemingly wrote just for live performances. The album version is catchy, but adrenaline-packed live versions completely dismantle the original. “Cadillac Ranch” is probably my favorite example of 80s rock and roll before it got too corny, with a jumpy rhythm and groovy bassline that combine to form an instantly accessible jam.
The title track is a song that deserves a 1000-word review of its own. From its opening acoustic guitar lines and harmonica intro to its now-classic Americana storyline, the song is among Springsteen’s most emotional. It comes close to paralleling “Thunder Road” as Springsteen’s finest work. A quote from The Boss himself explains the lyricism better than I can:
[The River] was a record made during a recession – hard times in the States. Its title song is a song I wrote for my brother-in-law and sister. My brother-in-law was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late 70s, like so many people are doing today. It was a record where I first started to tackle men and women and families and marriage.
The expansion of Springsteen’s songwriting on this record is something that comes across as almost miraculous. The River is where Springsteen showed the world that he could do absolutely whatever he wanted with music. Albums before and after it will go down as better records, but specific songs on The River went on to spawn entire albums. Tunnel Of Love, as previously stated, stemmed from “Stolen Car,” while the title track was the beginning of the singer/songwriter-focused Nebraska and “Hungry Heart” had aspects of Born In The U.S.A. The most interesting part of this is how many songs on The River came from Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions and tours that followed that record. Tons of songs were left over from that record, some which went to become hits for other artists, and about half a dozen of those songs ended up on The River.
In the end, I think The River has to go down as the strongest example of the absolutely driving force that is Springsteen’s songwriting. Twenty songs, and although there are flaws, none are actually worth skipping when you’re listening to the record. Never has an artist made 83 minutes go by faster. Hardly ever has an artist sold so many damn songs in such high quantities – the record has been crowned quintuple platinum.
The sequence of records that Springsteen wrote here – E Street Shuffle to Born To Run to Darkness to The River – has to be considered the best run of albums in the history of music by one artist. What other four consecutive records can compare to these? They each hold a place in the top 250 records of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine, which says something to me because they like The Beatles way too much over there. Never did The Beatles have a consecutive four-record sequence that paralleled the insane depth and complexity of Springsteen’s lyrics and musicianship. The River made it clear still relatively early in Springsteen’s career that he was one of the best to play the game – everything else after it was just about 15 thousand tons of proverbial icing on the cake.
Notable Fact: Ranked No. 250 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 500 albums of all time.