In 1979 Springsteen set about making the follow up to The Darkness on the Edge of Town. He had some hold overs from that album’s sessions (‘Sherry Darling’, ‘Ramrod’ and ‘The Ties that Bind’ for starters) but at this point he was writing songs at the same frequency most pass gas.
It was meant to be a single album that lead away from the more severe sound and approach of its predecessor and showcase the breadth of styles and joyousness of his band’s live sets of the time. Ten tracks, in, out and released late 1979 with a tour to follow, of course. And it almost was. A ten song album, The Ties That Bind was prepared and ready but then… Bruce held back. Because perched at the end of that single album was ‘The River’.
It’s a monumental song. When I got into Bruce via the 1995 Greatest Hits it was this one that caught my ear and made me pay attention. It still does. As with most of the more serious songs on The River the lyrics and themes aren’t as poetic as he’d written before but it’s the belief with which he sings them, the genuine investment which he puts into them that makes them so essential – these aren’t pop songs that can just be sung or waltzed trough, the material demands presence over phoning it in and if you try to sing these songs without giving it your all it will tell. From ‘The River’ to ‘Point Blank’ there’s no argument for a second that he isn’t 100% IN these songs and even after performing them countless times, live it’s clear that this is still the case . That’s why they reverberated at the time and why they continue to do so.
Writing what would become the title track of the eventual double had opened a new avenue, and Springsteen would go on to write more songs about men and women, their relationships and coming to terms with life’s hardships and would develop a much larger album to contain what he saw as the paradoxes of life; the joy and celebration of rock ‘n’ roll, but also its hardness. He wanted an album that continued the stories and themes he’d begun writing about on Darkness but one that didn’t wallow in them and would let in the light with the music that made his concerts such a revelation. He wrote so many more songs that three of those from the original single album were consigned to vaults (including ‘Loose Ends‘ much to Van Zandt’s chagrin). *
For my money it’s a good thing Springsteen did pull back the single album. That first one didn’t contain tracks like ‘Point Blank’ or ‘Independence Day’ (both further holdovers from The Darkness on the Edge of Town) and those other songs like ‘Fade Away’, ‘Drive All Night’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’ rank among his finest. I’ve already said that ‘Point Blank’ is one of my favourites elsewhere so will instead leave ‘Drive All Night’ here, one that I discovered via the underrated film Copland.
As important as I think those more serious songs are, the album’s duality is what marks it out in Bruce’s catalogue. There’s nothing really like it in terms of the full-spectrum or in terms of its sound. After years of sessions, agonising over track listing and capturing the right sound in the cavernous room they were recording in, the album that arrived was something much rawer than its predecessor. Gone were the wall-of-sound theatrics of Born To Run or the tense energy of Darkness.. in their place was a looser, more raucous garage-rock style (Van Zandt with a much larger production role) with a raw, jubilant sound and some of Springsteen’s finest vocals.
While there’s a couple of less-than-classics on the first half, (but even Crush On You has a catchy-as-a-cold riff) kicking off with ‘The Ties That Bind’ there’s a run of pure gold on it: ‘Jackson Cage, Two Hearts, Independence Day, Hungry Heart, Out In The Street (“oh oh oh oh oh!”) that makes for a near unbeatable half-hour of listening and was his most unabashed run of rock music to date.
Even the second half of the album, home to some of Springsteen’s heaviest material (just look at the lyrics to the closing ‘Wreck on the Highway’), features some of his most out-and-out direct rock music. From ‘Cadillac Ranch’ to the most obvious, daftly joyous and infectious mission-statement he’s made:
Whenever you read those stories about Bruce turning up at local shows and getting up on stage to cut loose, you know (hope) it’s going to be with those songs that represent the lighter half of The River and his catalogue. He’s not going to get up draw out ‘Point Blank’ or ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ he’s going to strap on the guitarist’s spare and blast through those straight-ahead, life affirming songs that he does so bloody well like ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ or he’ll give it the “let’s roadhouse” and kick into ‘Ramrod’ and the place will go fucking nuts.
So with so much pure Springsteen gold, why doesn’t it sit at the top? Personally, I think Bruce is at his best when focused. A double album is a lot to give attention to – twenty tracks doesn’t necessarily make for one session and the jarring nature of it can at times mean a slight stumble in flow. It’s a sod on vinyl but even when playing it in the car on CD, by the time I’ve made it through to the end of the second disc, the start of the album all the way back at ‘The Ties That Bind’ seems like a long time ago and isn’t as fresh in the ears as, say, ‘Radio Nowhere’ is come ‘Devil’s Arcade.’ However, it’s easily Top Five (and I’m sure it’s atop many a list) because what comes between those two distant points is so fucking good.
Even Steven Van Zandt admitted; “If it had been a single album, it would have been appreciated more, especially if he had put more of the pop-rock stuff on there. It would have been our biggest album. All you gotta do is throw on “The River” — that’s all the content you need. A little of Bruce’s content goes a long way. But he felt he had to do eight or ten songs like that.”
It was appreciated – critics fell over themselves to hand plaudits to its “weighty conclusions, words to live by”**, it topped the charts in the US and did well elsewhere too, going on to shift sufficient copies to sit immediately behind his two Born.. albums in terms of overall sales. Yet it’s often overlooked in his catalogue, not only because of its length but because, perhaps, it also sits between those two periods – it’s nestled between the breakout of Born To Run and Darkness and the massive explosion of Born In The USA.
With twenty tracks written and recorded at a period that Springsteen and the E Street Band were untouchable, it’s got the lot: from the silly (‘Crush On You’) to the serious (‘Wreck On The Highway’), everything in between, including Bruce’s first Top Ten hit (‘Hungry Heart’). The River is the best one-stop slab introduction for anyone who wants to get a grip on every aspect of his writing.
Highlights: We’re well into 5 Star territory here so, as before: The whole bloody thing.
*these are far from the only songs recorded during this period consigned to the vaults. Most of Disc 2 of Tracks contained songs from this period whose omission boggled the brain and then The Ties That Bind: The River Collection set offered even more. My favourite:
**Rolling Stone, of course.