Released October 17, 1980
83 min, 47 sec
Coming from the musical triumphs of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town back to back, Bruce Springsteen had established that he could do whatever he wanted for a little while. Born to Run marked the beginning of Springsteen’s turn from excitable hippie to representative of the working man; Darkness captured the raw essence of how the working man truly felt. As I noted when talking about Darkness a few years ago, Springsteen was in a dark, dark place when writing that album, and upon emerging from it with the supporting tour, Springsteen decided that he wanted to try and recapture his lighter, more fun-loving side.
The early recording of The River certainly reflects this pivot in Springsteen’s mindset. He wrote and recorded quickly, hammering away at new songs as well as songs that had first appeared during the Darkness sessions, songs like “The Ties That Bind,” “Independence Day,” and “Sherry Darling,” many of which premiered during the Darkness tour. The sessions through August 1979 yielded twenty-four songs; Springsteen, with a single album in mind at this point, pulled together ten for a tentative track list:
1. The Ties That Bind
2. The Price You Pay
3. Be True
4. Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own
5. Stolen Car
6. I Wanna Marry You
7. Loose Ends
8. Hungry Heart
9. The Man Who Got Away
Already, at this point, darkness began to creep into The River, mainly through the appearance of “Stolen Car” as the Side 1 closer. But this track list clearly demonstrates Springsteen’s desire to release a lighter album, keeping himself above the shadowy corners of Darkness.
But Springsteen was dissatisfied and restless, and he continued recording through the next two months. At this point, the album’s emotional core began to emerge, particularly with the recording of “The River,” though Springsteen still pushed against the dichotomy of light-heartedness and heavy reality that he had yet to truly understand.
This struggle personifies The River, and Springsteen’s desire to illustrate all sides of rock as a genre was the primary motivating factor behind the album’s expansion into a twenty-track behemoth. At this point in time, however, Springsteen was still thinking and formatting the album in the mold of a single LP, determined to make his vision fit within its ten-track confines. He felt comfortable enough with the format that he submitted a single-LP album to Columbia Records in October 1979, with the title The Ties That Bind:
1. The Ties That Bind
3. Hungry Heart
4. Stolen Car
5. Be True
6. The River
7. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
8. The Price You Pay
9. I Wanna Marry You
10. Loose Ends
This was closer, but Springsteen felt that it wasn’t drastic enough, wasn’t big enough, just was not enough. The label began working on the album artwork and promotion, intending to have the album out before the end of the year. But after submitting it, Springsteen, ever the perfectionist, pulled the album back and began hammering away again.
The dichotomy between joy and sorrow, he felt, needed to be more explicit, needed to be more detailed. The framework of that split can be seen in The Ties That Bind, with “Hungry Heart” and “Stolen Car” in sequence one after the other, and with “The River” opening Side 2 immediately before the frankly inessential “You Can Look.”
It’s a little remarkable to see what didn’t make the cut at this stage of the album’s recording process – no “Ramrod,” no “Independence Day,” no “Point Blank.” The sheer depth of Springsteen’s songbook at this point of his career is astounding. He would just write and write and write, to the point that he would give away bona fide hits like “Because the Night” and “Fire” simply because he wasn’t interested in fitting them on one of his own albums. Springsteen’s signature prolific nature, combined with his dissatisfaction with the picture The Ties That Bind was painting, would eventually burst the dam of the single album format, spilling out into a double album in early 1980 as Springsteen continued to write and hone in on the sound and themes he was hoping to convey.
Springsteen stated after the album’s release that he’d realized, during the production of The River, that contradiction and paradox are core tenets of rock music – the “frivolous next to the solemn,” as Wikipedia puts it. Rock music is about joy and partying and enjoyment of life, but it also illustrates hardship and despair. Springsteen’s goal with The River was to illustrate that dichotomy, to show both the party and what happens when all the guests leave, and the host only has himself for company. It was this desire that led to the emotional whiplash of “Two Hearts” leading into “Independence Day,” and the way Side 2 crashes down from “Crush on You” to title track “The River,” a song Springsteen wrote about his sister. “Crush on You” is inessential and tacky, but its mere presence causes “The River,” a song about accidental pregnancy forcing a couple to grow up too quickly and too soon, to resonate even more with its listeners than it would have if it stood alone.
The balance is delicate at times, and doesn’t always land right. Side 3 is a pretty good example of this – I’ve never really enjoyed the sequencing of “I’m a Rocker” into “Fade Away” into “Stolen Car.” It feels a little bit thrown together, as if Springsteen wasn’t really sure where these songs should sit on the record, just that they needed to make the cut. And a lot of the songs meant to illustrate the lighter side of the rock and roll life come off as inessential and filler-y, as if Springsteen had committed to a double album and needed to justify it. I understand their purpose, and in terms of serving the album’s core theme, they work, but as standalone songs, I’ve never enjoyed them, and it takes a lot of effort to not simply skip over them when listening to the album. It’s a little funny to me that Springsteen described some of them as his desire to capture the feel of his live shows, when the songs that really cemented him as a master of the live show were epics like “Backstreets” and “Jungleland,” with Springsteen giving his audience a tour through the heart of America, warts and all.
I’ve got a hearty list of favorites, though. “Independence Day” details Springsteen’s relationship with his father and the town they grew up in, vividly illustrating the inherent sadness his father fought with, enduring a changing of the times in the late 70s that carried over into the 80s. “The Ties That Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” and “Out in the Street” all convey a feeling of freedom, fleeting as it may be, that was so hard to grasp for the blue-collar worker in America in the 70s. “The River” is a classic, of course, but so is “Fade Away,” a powerfully melancholy song illustrating the loss of a love, who has moved on to someone better for her. But perhaps the strongest one-two punch of the entire album is “Drive All Night” into “Wreck on the Highway,” closing the album on the opposite note of the opening – once again embodying the two sides of rock music that Springsteen strove so hard to convey. “Drive All Night” is dripping with despair, the protagonist fighting against a loss that feels inevitable from the start to the end, pierced through the middle by a haunting, wailing Clarence Clemons solo. “Wreck on the Highway” is the come-down, the quiet coda to the long journey of The River, focusing once more on a couple in the middle of America, contemplating the cruelty and callousness of the world around them.
Perhaps The River’s sprawling nature is why it doesn’t feel as essential, as vital, to me. But it was massively successful, propelling Springsteen further and further into the American consciousness. The album produced standards like “Ramrod,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Two Hearts,” and of course, the monstrously successful “Hungry Heart” – Springsteen’s only top-ten Billboard pop hit, which, like so many other songs, Springsteen hadn’t even written for himself. Manager Jon Landau convinced Springsteen to retain it, and after a remix that sped up the song and pitched Springsteen’s voice up, the song became The River’s breakout pop hit, and one of his biggest live show hits.
Funnily enough, the tour in support of The River was just as large and sprawling as its root album, with Springsteen returning to Europe for the first time since his ill-fated trip during the Born to Run tours. This tour also featured, until 2014, the longest show of Springsteen’s career, on New Year’s Eve 1980 (and leaking into the start of 1981), 38 songs over four hours. The River’s tour was, like Darkness and Born to Run before it, an escalation of the same tour structure that came before, with longer shows and a more grandiose presentation by Springsteen. Like its corresponding album, the tour isn’t talked about in the same reverent terms as Darkness, but, like pretty much every tour Springsteen has ever embarked on, it had more than enough iconic moments, including one of the first instances of political speech Springsteen had ever exhibited, at the November 5, 1980 show, the day after Ronald Reagan was elected President. Springsteen stated of the election, “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening,” and followed that with a powerful, hectic rendition of “Badlands, a surprisingly strong political statement at the time.
Now then, what’s in the box?
The River, like Born to Run and Darkness before it, received a deluxe reissue collection in an anniversary year, this time the 35th anniversary in 2015. The Ties That Bind: The River Collection uses The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story as its base, containing a remaster of The River in packaging that emulates the original vinyl release (though not as closely as previous reissues), a live show from the era, a documentary chronicling the making of the album, and a set of outtakes. Uniquely, The Ties That Bind separately packages the original Ties That Bind single album, providing fans a glimpse at what could have been.
The packaging is predictably gorgeous, held in a simply massive slipcase featuring an expanded version of The River’s album cover, the text left off to focus on the stark profile of Springsteen. The CDs and Blu-rays are packaged in a facsimile of a tour crate, alongside a reproduction of Springsteen’s River-era notebook (with lyrics to the outtakes printed and faux-stapled in), and a beautiful coffee-table style photo book filled to the brim with photos from the recording and subsequent tour.
Despite the expansive nature of The Ties That Bind – that’s becoming a pretty common theme here – I found it to be somewhat more lacking than The Promise. Part of this is the sheer level of mysticism and lore centered around Darkness and its enormous amount of outtakes that Springsteen saw fit to dish out as sparingly as he possibly could. Another part is that Springsteen apparently deemed a decent swath of River outtakes to be unfit for release, which, combined with the sizable amount of River outtakes previously released on Tracks in 1998, meant that Springsteen had to recycle a batch of “greatest hits” outtakes from the River era to fill out the outtakes CD. And it was a significant amount, amounting to the entire second half of the outtakes CD.
Though it made sense why Springsteen filled it out in this manner – there was a standard of content quantity established by The Promise, and The River had already used nearly half of the songs written on the original album itself – it still felt like a bit of a letdown. But hey, we got a studio recording of “Paradise by the “C””, while I believe is the only instrumental track Springsteen has ever released, as well as highlights like “Meet Me in the City” and “Stray Bullet.”
The professional mix of the single album is also a curious listen, even if it had been available for decades as a bootleg in the exact sequence released in this box set. It’s a nice, unique nod to the evolution of The River’s recording process, and an interesting batch of tracks for the less obsessive fan.
The River accomplished what it set out to do – it’s a sprawling collection of songs written at the height of Springsteen’s raw productivity, and provides a fascinating look into how Springsteen thought about the genre he worked in. At times it feels overly long, it drags for nearly an entire side, and the box set doesn’t quite match the heights set by The Promise, but The River is still easily an essential piece of the Springsteen canon, his first step forward as a true rock star, setting the stage for the rest of his career.
More Springsteen: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. | Born to Run | Darkness on the Edge of Town | Born in the U.S.A. | Live/1975-85 | Chimes of Freedom | Columbia Records Radio Hour | Blood Brothers EP | Devils & Dust | American Beauty