The original 1980 The River album proved to be a brilliant mess, a strategic departure from Born To Run’s operatic ballads and even from the less romantic Darkness On The Edge of Town. Here with The River, it seemed, was a collection of songs that maxed out the Boss’s creative forces, with a range of rockers and folk ballads more loosely constructed around a few straightforward chords.
Yes, The River rockers, of which there seemed to be a plethora, showcased the band in a live type sound, taking joy in the noise itself. Meanwhile, the more introspective music provided a look into the vast dark spaciousness that became a hallmark on the Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad albums. The songs foreshadowed a more succinct Springsteen but the album itself was anything but succinct. Perhaps, one wondered, Springsteen had run out of songs in creating this double album?
With the release now of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set including The River Outtakes, Springsteen leaves no doubt that this period was far more prolific than anyone could have hoped or imagined, as the unreleased tracks match the sound of almost everything on the originally released album. Yes, while it’s impossible to match the hauntingly beautiful “River” title track or the negative space of the released version of “Stolen Car,” most of the unreleased material could be substituted for what was included without a huge change in quality or style.
One of the unreleased albums is a single album version of The River. The title track remains the centerpiece, but, with just ten tracks, most of them overlapping with the actual album, one sees, ironically, how the album could have been consolidated.
However, the other previously unreleased album contains twenty-two more tracks, highlighting the fact that The River could have easily been twice as long. The songs are not just interesting. They rock. The instrumental “Paradise By The ‘C’” would be a top album track. “The Man Who Got Away” rocks hard and poignant songs like “Stray Bullet” resonate.
Some of these songs have been released over the years in other contexts, but, here, they find their home. With the E Street Band jamming so tightly, no wonder Springsteen sings that he wants to be “Where The Bands Are.” Every song tells a story and it’s the band that brings each narrative to life.
Without sounding specifically dated, it’s surprising somehow to recognize the influence of Springsteen’s peers on such an original artist’s work. Still, a listen to the Heartbreakers, The Ramones, The Clash, and Jackson Browne would give insight into what The River sounds like.
Other than a respectable awareness of the music around him, does Springsteen’s box set album reveal any significant flaws? The answer is yes, but even these flaws have their charms. There is a compulsive OCD quality to the writing of these similar-to-each-other rockers that borders on repetitious. However, when one takes a step back, he has covered a surprisingly diverse range of terrain.
There is something messy about having so much creativity, but the unreleased material has been structured in an easy to absorb fashion. Especially effective is the inclusion of the single album version of The River. Including more has showcased how there could have been less, and that efficient consolidation proves intriguing and largely effective.
One can hear the band trying to live up to the sound of the great soul and oldies rock n’ roll, with touches of the Stones, Dylan, and the Beach Boys, but in a fashion that was more contemporary to the times in which The River was written. It is a tribute to the lyrical storytelling abilities of the frontman that, more often than not, the band doesn’t fall short of its lofty ambitions.