Bruce Springsteen’s recent release of The Ties That Bind, a new boxset commemorating his 1980 album The River, left a lot of casual fans scratching their heads. Those unfamiliar with the depth of Springsteen’s material may not understand why he would want to celebrate the release of an album that, while yielding hit singles like Hungry Heart, does not often receive the same notoriety as his more famous works. In fact, given the depressing, gut-wrenching nature of songs like the title track, some might even maintain the criticism that Springsteen should focus on more commercially friendly material.
The River can seem off-putting to some, given its often exceptionally dark tones and bleak outlook. One look at the title track, hosting a photo of The Boss staring dejectedly into the camera, tells you all you need to know about his emotional state at the time. More than that, though, it might seem confusing. Through the course of its massive length – 20 songs – The River offers an eclectic mix. Only half the songs display the soul-crushing visions of human frailty associated with the title track. The other half represent, oddly enough, a series of uptempo party tunes. In 1980, those hearing the songs for the first time often stated they did not know, by the end of it, whether to throw a huge party or cut their wrists.
Springsteen does not make arbitrary decisions. For each of his albums, he recorded dozens of songs and selected only a handful. For The River, 20 made the cut, out of a pool large enough to fill five discs on this set while still leaving a massive collection available only in bootlegged format. And yet, half of the songs on The River sound almost pointless. Upbeat, bar-band rock tracks such as Crush On You or Cadillac Ranch beat out lugubrious, vivid pieces such as fan-favorites Restless Nights and Roulette. The latter two feature a sense of urgency, panic and dread absent in the former. Indeed, the former seem almost vacuous by comparison, making their inclusion alongside the darker songs a peculiarity.
But The Boss makes no mistakes.
The uptempo tunes throughout the album all have a remarkably similar feel – they cruise along at moderately fast tempos, offering plenty of chances to sing along but not much by way of emotional depth. Indeed, some have termed songs like Sherry Darling “frat rock” for their depictions of overly masculine stereotypes, and Springsteen himself originally introduced the song as something to “throw up in your girlfriend’s purse” to, back in 1978.
Ultimately, though, it’s the dissonance between these two styles that brings the vision of the album to life. When Springsteen sings his party anthems, they all have a distinct sense of masculinity about them. The narrators act possessively towards their women, insisting on feminine dependency and projecting bravado into every declarative statement. In songs like Out In The Street, Springsteen commands his girlfriend to “Put on your best dress” and “fix your hair up right,” as though she exists simply to glorify his own self-image. In Cadillac Ranch, the titular automobile has a distinctly phallic nature.
And yet it always returns to horrific lows. The title track, detailing the true story of Springsteen’s sister and brother-in-law, concludes with the gut-wrenching line, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/or is it something worse?” Songs like Point Blank detail the absolute destruction of the idyllic life, where the subject of the song ends up “Just another stranger, waiting to get blown away.”
The two sets of songs compliment each other by illustrating the two sides of the American male. On one hand, Springsteen projects himself with a sense of masculinity and bravado. On the other, in moments of vulnerability, he betrays fragility. To the outside world, he presents only the former set. Only when he pushes people away can he let himself sit alone with the thoughts that dare not see the light of day. This becomes part of his blue-collar culture, struggling in a world of poverty and subsistence labor where the narrator feels emasculated to the point of dependency on these false projections. Even the lighter songs, if one looks past the sing along choruses, betray the insecurity. By the end of Cadillac Ranch, his lifestyle – presented before this point as a carefree romp – has become a jail. “You’re my last chance,” he finishes, “Don’t let them take me to the Cadillac Ranch!”
This culminates in the final upbeat, bar-stomping number, Ramrod. On its surface, Ramrod should play out as a carefree song, featuring comical lyrics composed around car-based images of sex. The music reflects it well enough, and yet what strikes most people most is the vocals. Rather than reflecting the frivolous attitude the song implies, Springsteen sings these upbeat, humorous, lines in a voice that sounds completely dead inside. Like all things Springsteen, this came from a deliberate choice, as The Boss has mentioned in interviews that the song is fundamentally about the concept of life and death. Even when reciting lines like “I swear I think of your pretty face when I let ‘er unwind,” Springsteen’s voice remains completely flat, featuring no inflections, no fluctuations, no changes in pitch or volume. It offers nothing but the shallow realization of his status quo. The devotion to his image of masculinity, struggling to suppress his insecurities has left the narrator exhausted of real emotion. He has nothing left but commitment to his unfulfilling life of falsity.
When Ramrod ends, it goes straight into Drive All Night, an eight-minute ballad that serves as the summation of the entire album. Springsteen has penned countless epics before, with myriad songs of his surpassing this length through constant shifts in tempo and rhythm, weaving intricate dramatic tales. Jungleland, for example, off the Born To Run album, details a massive noir drama over the course of 10 minutes, through several sections of music sounding completely different than the last. Drive All Night does not resemble these. For eight minutes, Bruce’s E Street Band maintains the same three piano chords over a soft bass line and subdued drum beat. Other instruments come and go – most notably, a gorgeous sax solo by none other than the late, great Clarence Clemons – but the song never picks up beyond this soft state, reminiscent of a lullaby.
Here, all the bravado has melted away; Springsteen sings not a story, not an image of bravado, but a confession of dependency. From the opening lines – “When I lost you honey/sometimes I think I lost my guts, too,” the listener can tell that Springsteen plans to admit his darkest moments of weakness. Stripping the veneer of his tough, careless and perhaps sexist exterior away, he reveals himself as a fragile, fearful soul who cannot get through the dark, impenetrable night alone. Through every line, Springsteen sounds as though he might burst into tears. Indeed, by the end of the piece his voice reminds the listener of a wounded animal, howling for help in its distress. “You’ve got my love,” he moans, “Through the wind, through the rain – the snow, the wind the rain – you’ve got my love.” Far from the boisterous, confident performances of “The Ties That Bind,” or “Two Hearts,” the guttural nature of Springsteen’s voice now betrays timid weeping. He has admitted his terrifying secret – he is not a man. Rather, he is a human being.
The final track, compared to Drive All Night, seems a let down by comparison, a brief coda that serves as less of a sweeping statement. Yet it, too, brings the themes together. Springsteen has often used the imagery of cars to represent freedom. On the Born to Run album, the car presents an opportunity for escape – “Mary climb in,” he sang on Thunder Road, “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win!” Throughout The River, this metaphor takes another turn. By Cadillac Ranch, it’s a prison. By Ramrod, it’s a distraction from his spiritual malaise. And, finally, in the closing track of Wreck On the Highway, it represents death, the ultimate crash and burn.
The River ends with a final statement of dependency. After witnessing a man’s death in a car crash, the narrator clutches his lover in bed, lying awake in the dead of night as he listens to her fragile, passing breaths, afraid of losing her. Too exhausted to maintain his illusions, too weak to handle the harshness of the world, Springsteen retreats to the only thing that can truly make him feel strong: the touch of another human being.