Rebounding after a three year lawsuit induced layoff with the "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" album a couple of years earlier and sounding very much like a man with a new lease on life, Bruce Springsteen's "The River" is a sprawling double disc set that finds the artist shedding his old skin and sliding comfortably into a new one. Not so much an evolution of an artist as a 90 degree turn of sorts, Bruce and The E Street Band would tighten up the arrangements for The River, strip down their sound, and make their most "rock" sounding record to date. Which is not to say they would completely forsake the R&B and soulful influences of the past, its just to say the guitars ring out and jangle whereas before they seemed to blend, and the drums go pop as often as they go boom. This is Bruce setting up house for the set of songs that would comprise the Nebraska and Born In The USA albums, and he sounds as confident going in as he did coming out a few years later for a walk into super stardom. The River is one of Bruce Springsteens very best albums. One spin around the block with it and you'll know why.
With Springsteen's vision going dark for his previous album after his earlier more hopeful work, for The River Bruce found room to include not just the dour but also the hope and uplift he offered on his first three albums, often within the same song, as this record would see Bruce for the first time mixing hopelessly dire lyrics with music and choruses so jubilant you can't help but dance all over your heartache. The first half of the album is decidedly more upbeat then the second as Springsteen and band get things rolling with "The Ties That Bind", and the first thing you notice is the change in sound and tone from his Born To Run days. The production is bright, sunny, and almost pop in nature, Bruce's guitar ringing out cleanly rather then blending into the mix as we've heard previous as he leads his tight band through the paces for this ode to commitment and facing those "ties that bind" in life together, rather then alone. The next tune, "Sherry Darlin", is similarly upbeat as this Clarence Clarence saxophone led blast of Philly inspired soul rocks out in a faux live fashion that sounds like it was recorded in a bar, complete with crowd noise and hand claps. Again its an offer to a girl of commitment in the face of the odds against them both, whatever those odds are, and these first few songs do indeed set the tone for the entire record, if not completely. This is a relationship album. Relationships between man and woman, friends and family, work, and even with one self when it comes to issues of identity. Perhaps nothing new for Bruce on a few fronts, but never was his vision as clear or his music as focused as on this disc. This album is the one on which Bruce would leave his humble small town Jersey roots behind for something larger and more universal. And it has the sound of an artist breaking free if not for the first time, then perhaps for the second or third, at least.
Elsewhere on the first half of the record we find Bruce getting personal with the quietly touching, soulful ballad "Independence Day" which has Springsteen addressing his often troubled relationship with his father and his roots, with the final solution being one of just leaving and never looking back, however hard or however unfinished your business may be. "Just say goodbye/Its Independence Day/Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say/I swore I never meant to take those things away" an older and wiser Bruce sings regretfully. Too little, too late, perhaps? Its leaving time. Springsteen faves "Out In The Street", the twangy screamer "Crush On You", and bittersweet country-ish ballad "I Wanna Marry You" are also found on the first disc, all of which find Bruce's once drifting dreamers looking for something a bit more solid and real then the fleeting ideals and broken hearts found on Springsteen albums gone past. But the hopeless dead ends are also accounted for in the title track and the deceptively brilliant "Hungry Heart".
Closing the first half of the record with that title track, "The River" sets up the next half of the album perfectly, and while its hard to say if this song is Bruce's best song ever in a catalog spilling over with great songs, it certainly comes close. A pitch perfect look at youthful dreams gone bad for people who never had a chance at life in the first place, this quiet tune finds Bruce's subjects out of work, out of love, and out of time before they reach the age of 20, wishing for the simple dreams they had just a few slim years earlier that weren't much even then. Of the young man and woman in the song who wed out of obligation and necessity rather then love, Bruce sings of what should be the happiest day of anyones life "We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest/No wedding day smiles/No walk down the aisle/No flowers no wedding dress". Sounding more funeral then wedding, this is heartbreaking storytelling at its very best, cinematic and vivid in every way. And while the aforementioned top 20 hit Hungry Heart may have an upbeat R&B vibe and feel good melody, a close listen to the lyrics reveal a man leaving his home, his family, and his life in one fell swoop just to look for what he already has. "I met her in a Kingston bar/We fell in love we knew it had to end/We took what we had and we ripped it apart/Now here I am down in Kingston again". This kind of songwriting would become more prominent for Springsteen in the years to come, where he writes of the most tragic lives and situations imaginable yet makes the music so joyous and uplifting it seeps into the psyche sideways rather then directly, allowing you to shake your arse through your pain and maybe shake off some of that pain, as well.
The second half of The River finds Bruce quieting things but throwing in some earth shaking rock n roll to keep things lively for good measure. To start things the thoughtful but awkward tale of a down and out hooker "Point Blank" is perhaps one of Springsteen's dullest moments on record with its plodding rhythm and uneven lyrics, the band seemingly searching for a groove they never quite find. But thankfully things pick up considerably on the very next track as Bruce goes deceptive again in the big beat twang of "Cadillac Ranch". Like Hungry Heart, this song about death coming to your front door and hauling you and your love away is performed like a celebration of life. All huge drums, rollicking piano, and backwoods rock n roll fever, you wouldn't guess its true meaning even after a hundred listens. And if so you would hardly care, as the beat is so infectious it just carries you away. "James Dean in that Mercury '49/Junior Johnson bought it in the woods of 'Caroline/Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans AM/All are gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch" Bruce sings of the infamous Caddy graveyard located in the great American Southwest that features half buried Caddy's sticking up from out of the ground. "Don't let them take me to the Cadillac Ranch! Springsteen proclaims, and while his urgency is noted, we're too busy dancing all over this track to care what the big emergency is. Its just plain fun. And "I'm A Rocker" and "Ramrod" are just flat out good time tunes that find Bruce boasting of his R&R mojo on the foot stomping former and seamlessly blending metaphors for sex and automobiles on the organ led latter. But these songs simply serve to balance the second half of the album as Bruce's dark intentions are more apparent then what came on disc one.
Getting mellow on songs such as "Fade Away" which finds a desperate lover pleading with his lost girl to take him back at any cost, and the mid tempo "The Price You Pay" that sounds like a hold out from The Darkness On The Edge Of Town album, these songs have more of the lonesome and tragic feel of the title track of the record, if not exactly. No upbeat music to soften the blows, no hope at the end of the long road. And both "Stolen Car" and album closer "Wreck On The Highway" could have fit comfortably on Springsteen's bleak near classic album of demo's Nebraska, released just a year and a half later. Stolen Car features simple musical shading that makes the song seem very close to nothingness just as its subject, who steals cars just in the hope of getting caught to bring some meaning to his dire life. And Wreck On The Highway finds another lonely guy on the highway who comes across a dying man in the road and finds himself reflecting on just how close he might be to the same fate. "Sometimes I sit up in the darkness/And I watch my baby as she sleeps/I climb in bed and I hold her tight/I just lay there awake in the middle of the night/Thinkin' 'bout the wreck on the highway" Springsteen sings, the fear and loneliness coming straight through. And its the tone of these two songs that Bruce would touch on again and again for the rest of his career. A feeling of finality, no longer born to run, no more backstreets to hide out on. Black and white, life and death, front and center. No one said growing up in a hard land would be easy. But maybe one more Saturday night out with your baby in the 'ol ramrod and lying awake fearful in the middle of the night next to the only thing that means anything to you will be just enough to get you by. Or maybe not...
The River serves as a seamless transition album of sorts for Bruce Springsteen, and its the seamless part that is most impressive. Taking the best of what he was and combining it with the artist and man he had quickly become, Springsteen's The River flows stormy, strong, and a little unpredictably just like a river should. Heading down those waters, eyes wide, heart a little heavy, but somehow ever hopeful, it would begin the long journey to somewhere that Springsteen the man and artist still seems to be on to this day with his foray into politics, folk music, and family life. Certainly a must have in any rock music fans collection this album is heart, soul, pleasure and pain all rolled into one. And its even one hell of a good time if thats what you want it to be. Laughing, crying, and howling at the moon all at the same time, its about all you can ask for from a rock n roll album, and a bit more. Talking about Springsteen late one night with Zack de la Rocha who at the time was with RATM, he told me he felt Bruce was one of the most subversive American songwriters and performers to ever come down the pike, and had great admiration for him. Surprising given the communist/socialist/radical political bend of de la Rocha and Bruce's All-American image, perhaps? But a close listen to albums such as this, Nebraska, Born In The USA, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and RATM's cover of Springsteen's "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" would reveal Zack to be very perceptive indeed. And I couldn't agree more. This album just as much as any Springsteen album captures those subversive tendencies in full bloom, and for the attentive listener the rewards cut deep and rich. Call it a new beginning, an evolution, or as said before, a shift of sorts, but Springsteen's artistic vision was never clearer then on this album. And thankfully for us he continues to mine these same deep waters to this very day. Call him what you will, but I like to call him "The Boss". And The River finds him filling those big shoes quite nicely. Rave on, 'Boss...