Bruce Springsteen – The River – 1980
Let’s just get this out of the way: Gary W. Tallent is the unsung hero of the E Street Band. From the opening “Ties that Bind” all the way through the rest of the record, the dude is center stage and on fire. He makes The River one of the best, if not only, albums that I want to Air Bass to.
The River opens like a concert. Four big, brawling rockers in a row. “The Ties that Bind”, “Sherry Darling” (Simply one of the most fun and rapacious songs ever, tearing apart a mother in law with glee and abandon), “Jackson Cage” and “Two Hearts”. We NEED “Independence Day” just to breath. And, dammit if that song isn’t the Field of Dreams of songs. A boy and his father’s parting. I am years away from it, and NOT looking forward to it.
And that’s side one.
The River is the phoenix from the ashes of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Elegiac and majestic, bombastic and buoyant. With such heaviness that preceded it, The River HAD to be a double album. And it HAD to come fast. I’m not sure, knowing how much Bruce tours, how he managed to get the tracks and band together to record this, but maybe that’s the trick: Because this album sounds better than all of his previous. Without giving in to commercialism.
Even though his biggest hit single from it, “Hungry Heart” seems tailor made for 70s rock radio (and it was ubiquitous at the time), he wrote it for The Ramones (!!!) and sang in a way that he almost never would again. With the swinging backup singers and the boardwalk calliope organ of Danny Federici, it’s impossible not to tap your feet, feel good and want to go out on a first date down the shore when you hear it.
On The River, Bruce and his team so successfully bridge the 50s doo wop and 60’s Spector influences and meld them into Bruce’s own epic, stadium ready workaday, blue collar sound that the album is rendered timeless.
Bar band confections like “Crush on You” and “I’m a Rocker” and “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch” are dust bowl singalongs that I just can’t resist. I’m moving in my seat as I type. And there’s a riff buried in “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch” that Keith Richards would be jealous of.
But it’s the ballads that will break your heart. The lonely man, pining for the single mother in “I Wanna Marry You”, the hopeless narrator in “The River”, (who could, for all intents BE the father in the previous song – has there been a song that cut to the core of dead end life?), The welfare queen in “Point Blank” (who could be the same girl)…these tracks speak to a weary life of the lower than middle class, perhaps the heroes of “Born to Run” looked at through the filter of a harsher reality. It isn’t enough to just wanna get out of town and leave a trail of romantic dust. That makes a great shot in the movies. But, afterwards, there’s the residue of life. The aftermath. Unwanted children. Trapped marriages. It’s not enough to pine after the girl after she’s left you. It’s the plaintive wail of one who doesn’t want to just fade from her memory, her life. (And the damned thing fades out, too! Genius)
Bruce can break your fucking heart.
Look, I can just go on and on, you know? I mean, is there anything more heartbreaking than the narrator admitting that the letters he wrote to the girl made her feel 100 years old on “Stolen Car”? Probably not. Or as harrowing as the nearly torpid “Wreck on the Highway”? Not really.
I hadn’t really listened to The River in earnest in a couple decades. I was missing out. Does it all get sort of exhausted by the fourth side? Sure. “The Price You Pay” doesn’t cover new ground and you almost don’t make it to “Wreck on the Highway” because of the show closing dirge that is “Drive All Night”. But, those are transgressions easy to forgive.
ASide: The Ties that Bind, Sherry Darling, Independence Day, Hungry Heart, Out in the Street, The River,
BlindSide: You Can Look But You Better Not Touch, Crush on You, Point Blank, I’m a Rocker, Fade Away, Stolen Car, Wreck on the Highway