'The River' at 40: Here's why it's one of Bruce Springsteen's greatest albums
Editor's note: Bruce Springsteen's "The River" LP turns 40 today, Oct. 17. This is the third in a series of posts about that classic album to mark the occasion. Also check out our River covers playlist and our poll results of your favorite tracks on the classic album.
As Bruce Springsteen liked to point out on his 2016 tour celebrating 1980's The River, he was looking at the time to make an album that sounded "like an E Street Band show," and it was certainly that. It captured, like none of his previous albums had, the rollicking energy and humor that his now-legendary backing band brought to the table night after night. But it was more than that too.
It may not quite have the status of Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town, but as I argued in my book Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums, you can't not consider The River for the title of Bruce's greatest album. Below is the chapter that explains why.
Released: October 17, 1980
Highest Chart Position: US 1 / UK 2
One of the most remarkable things to note about The River is what it almost was. The Ties That Bind, the 10-track album that Bruce Springsteen had ready in 1979, seems positively anemic compared to what it eventually became: a sprawling, two-LP, 20-song exploration of fractured relationships and quiet desperation alongside a celebration of the healing power of rock ’n’ roll.
Springsteen reportedly went back to the studio after listening to The Ties That Bind and deciding there wasn’t enough there there, and his instincts were right: Even with anchors like “The River” and “The Price You Pay,” the songs that would have rounded out the album – including “Cindy” and “I Wanna Marry You” – feel slight in comparison to the epic bombast of Born to Run and stark fury of Darkness.
What came out of the resulting reboot is still thought of by many as Springsteen’s party album – a co-worker of mine recently told me he gave up on Springsteen in 1980 when he switched over to “frat music” – and it certainly has no shortage of high-energy garage rock that doesn’t require a lot of deep thinking to appreciate. In fact, “Crush On You” and “I’m A Rocker” are the poster children for people who claim that The River is a bloated overreach, and that The Boss should have quit while he was ahead.
Take another spin through some of the other up-tempo tracks on the LPs, though, and new layers start to show themselves. As Steve Pond – one of many critics to recognize the album’s overall strengths despite some drawbacks – wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “At first, this simply sounds like Springsteen’s party record, full of nods to Buddy Holly, Duane Eddy and the Byrds, and far happier than the brooding, unsettling Darkness on the Edge of Town … Later, the remarkable cohesion, consistency and depth emerge.”
Case in point: “The Ties That Bind” and “Two Hearts” return to Springsteen’s theme of the redeeming possibilities of human relationships, taking the concept even further in painting those connections as not just valuable, but invaluable. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” is a guitar-fueled rollick through the pitfalls of social and emotional isolation. And “Sherry Darling,” with its background whoops and hollers, wrings happiness out of mundane family struggles by celebrating the small joys to be found even in the most oppressive urban landscape.
But those descriptions sound deceptively heavy-handed, given what the songs also are: vibrant, celebratory and, for pretty much the first time in Springsteen’s career, often downright funny.
Anyone who’d seen him in concert knew Springsteen had his lighter side, but it wasn’t until songs like “Cadillac Ranch” and “Ramrod” made it on a record that his sense of humor spilled out via vinyl. With its references to Burt Reynolds and getting carted off to the junkyard instead of the graveyard, “Cadillac” is a party on wheels, even as it ends up as another tale of lost love. And “Ramrod,” spurred on by handclaps, Danny Federici’s carnival organ and Clarence Clemons’ Stax-y honks, is Springsteen’s loosey-goosey homage to … Well, we all know what it’s an homage to.
Musically, Steven Van Zandt’s imprimatur is all over The River, from the garagey ’60s riffs to the jangly Byrds guitars – and although it’s perfectly matched to the material, it’s hard not to acknowledge a certain sameness among the tracks that detracts from the whole package. (Maybe three sides would have actually worked better than four.) So given those quibbles, why consider it among a discussion of Springsteen’s greatest work?
Well, one reason is the sheer scope. Double albums were certainly not unheard of – Springsteen was no doubt a fan of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and Pink Floyd had had a massive hit a year earlier with The Wall – but they were certainly still a risk, particularly if they weren’t of the “concept” or “live” variety. But the beauty of Springsteen’s approach with The River is the way it allowed him the canvass to juxtapose rambling rock ’n’ roll shout-outs with quieter studies of the human condition … and somehow make them work together toward an even greater whole.
Of course, even more jaunty songs like “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first top-10 single, deal with real-life issues like isolation and abandonment, but several of The River’s tracks delve deeper and resonate more powerfully. The first of those, “Independence Day,” feels almost mournful as it kicks in to close the album’s otherwise raucous first side. A sort of mirror image of “Adam Raised a Cain,” its narrator half-sings with a tired resignation, offering a moving declaration of freedom from the darkness that can haunt fathers and sons.
It’s a similar darkness that can haunt husbands and wives as well, as we find out on the album’s classic, timeless title track. Based on Springsteen’s own sister, it’s the story of a teenage couple wed after an unplanned pregnancy – “no flowers, no wedding dress” – and the crushing fallout that follows.
The narrator’s desperation is underscored by Springsteen’s whining harmonica, and it eventually culminates in what may be Springsteen’s most disconsolate lyric: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” That line alone cements the album’s place in Springsteen’s canon.
Later, on the brooding, echo-laden “Stolen Car,” the unrealized promise of a failed marriage is brought to gut-wrenching life, the stolen car of the title representing an existence the narrator never planned on and can’t fully inhabit. Like on so many of the album’s tracks, Federici’s keyboard is simply haunting – as it fades to end the song, you’re left hoping that one day the driver goes out for a ride and never comes back, for the sake of everybody involved.
Similarly, on “Point Blank,” the organ’s plaintive whistle combines with Roy Bittan’s evocative piano and Garry Talent’s lurking bass lines to perfectly match the lyrics, some of Springsteen’s most devastating. Moving from a hopeful dream of a lost love to an icy final confrontation on a dark street, the song, with its casually violent imagery – “bang bang, baby you’re dead” – stirs up emotions both heart-rending and crushingly familiar.
“Drive All Night,” which originated as in interlude in Springsteen’s live performances of “Backstreets,” comes epically into its own on the slow and deliberate track. It’s a paean to a woman for whom he’d drive all night, “just to buy you some shoes” – even though he makes it clear from the first line that he’s already lost her. It segues into the album’s shorter closing track, “Wreck on the Highway,” in which the only protection against random tragedy is his sleeping lover’s breath. Taken together they close the album with what was becoming Springsteen’s trademark: a desperate hopefulness borne of real life.
The River may not be perfect, but it was a massive undertaking that displayed the various forces at play in Springsteen’s music. It continued and expanded upon his themes of how despair, loneliness and inequity could – and often must – co-exist with simple pleasures that make life worth living. And OK, it makes a darn good party album too.
For more on "Glory Days: Springsteen's Greatest Albums," the collection of Springsteen essays and commentary by Peter Chianca of Blogness on the Edge of Town, visit Amazon.com.