Bruce Springsteen – The River

The River (1980)

B+

1. The Ties That Bind 2. Sherry Darling 3. Jackson Cage 4. Two Hearts 5. Independence Day 6. Hungry Heart 7. Out In The Street 8. Crush On You 9. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) 10. I Wanna Marry You 11. The River 12. Point Blank 13. Cadillac Ranch 14. I’m A Rocker 15. Fade Away 16. Stolen Car 17. Ramrod 18. The Price You Pay 19. Drive All Night 20. Wreck On The Highway

 

So what it is it people look to get out of Bruce Springsteen? Romantic escapism? Or gritty tales of their real-life woe? Clearly, either or both are acceptable answers. But here’s the thing: whichever approach Bruce takes, his songs are almost all totally made up. That’s actually what makes him such an effective Voice of the People: he usually sings about other people, fictional or not, and only rarely about himself. Which is wise on his part, because an important thing to remember is that Bruce doesn’t do drugs, and never has. According to Little Stevie: “[Bruce is] the only guy I know—I think the only guy I know at all—who never did drugs” (which certainly explains how he’s managed to maintain the health and stamina needed to continue to play four-hour shows well into his 60s. As for Little Stevie himself, he probably can’t offer the same explanation). So having never made any truly self-destructive life choices like most rock stars do, and thus lacking a consistent source of inner turmoil (beyond his famously contentious relationship with his father, but one can only get so many songs out of that), he has been forced to mine others’ turmoil. Same deal when he bellows about cutting loose and sticking it to the man. When people imagine playing out songs like “Out In The Street” or “Night,” they’re probably envisioning themselves getting hammered. But if Bruce were there with them, he’d be the dork sitting alone in the corner of the bar pondering the plight of the working man and teetotaling his ass off.

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure where I’m going with this rant, but I think the eventual point I wanted to get to is that The River has 20 songs on it, about half are happy, about half are sad, and only one is actually about Bruce Springsteen himself (“Independence Day,” which is about Bruce’s aforementioned daddy issues and is ironically my favorite song on the whole record). Basically, it has a whole bunch of stories on it that Bruce Springsteen made up, and no matter what kind of story you’re interested in hearing him tell, you’ll be able to find at least one (and probably more) consolidated with many others all in one place on The River. The result is a purposefully schizophrenic marathon double album that gives the people what they want and more. Possibly too much more.

Do you want the good-time swingin’ big band party Bruce? Well good, cause he’s all over this thing! It’s clear he wanted to load up The River with a bunch of fun, upbeat songs that the E Street Band could play live so they wouldn’t have to continue to fill their sets with ponderous anthems like “Jungleland.” And he delivered! The happy party songs on The River are collectively a potent antidote to the self-serious streak that runs throughout Bruce’s catalog (including this very album!), radiating high-energy, downright commercial hooks all over the place, from chummy sing-along choruses (“Sherry Darling,” Springsteen’s first top ten single “Hungry Heart”) to wicked catchy rockabilly guitar licks (“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “Cadillac Ranch”) to pounding Stones-inspired riffs (“Two Hearts,” “Crush On You”). Other than the vomitously fruity “I Wanna Marry You,” The River’s cheery half is as irresistibly catchy as it is derivative and shallow as they are in terms of theme and song structure.

That said, lyrically, there’s little more to those songs than “I got you, baby you got me,” so an entire album’s worth of the likes of “I’m A Rocker” might have felt a bit frivolous following the emotional gut punch that was Darkness. So Bruce balanced it out with a couple of more serious rockers—the pleasingly jangly/bombastic “The Ties That Bind” and the fist-pumper “Out In The Street”—as well as three of his finest ever stark acoustic dramas: “Independence Day,” the classic title track, and the plainspoken yet strikingly vivid vignette “Wreck On The Highway.”

Had he stopped there, Bruce would’ve had another top tier single album on his hands. But did he stop there? No. He didn’t. Instead, he made it a double album by adding some of the dourest, most boringass dirges he’s ever written. “Drive All Night” can best be described as the soundtrack to an eight and a half-minute nap. I can’t even remember how “Stolen Car” goes, despite the fact that it was inexplicably released as a single, apparently. “Point Blank” is so quiet and indistinctive I am not entirely convinced it even exists, thus causing me to descend into an existential crisis – if “Point Blank” doesn’t exist, does anything exist? DO I EVEN EXIST??? Ahhhhhhhhhh

Look, I’m not opposed to the concept of pairing flippant tunes about cruising for chicks with moody, furrowed brow lamentations. It would have even helped to sequence the record with a little more balance, since most of the fast songs are bunched together on disc 1, and the slow ones are mostly on disc 2. But man, those dull ballads really drag down what is otherwise the most unabashedly crowd pleasing music Bruce had put out to this point. Oh, and I also have to dock it a tiny bit for “Cadillac Ranch,” despite it being one of my favorite songs on the album, since it went on to become the namesake of this tourist trap bar in Nashville I went to like 6 years ago, where I was subjected to some fat hillbilly playing Kings Of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” That guy sucked.



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