The Boss's most rewarding album revisited. The Mail on Sunday, November 29 2015
The Ties That Bind: The River Collection
Columbia, out Friday
It’s time to start being less hard on the Eighties. In music alone, this was the decade of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love, Prince’s Purple Rain, U2’s The Joshua Tree, Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, Peter Gabriel’s So, Roxy Music’s Avalon, Paul Simon’s Graceland, ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love – and Bruce Springsteen’s The River. Not a bad first XI.
Born To Run is more celebrated, Born In The USA more successful, but The River is Springsteen’s most rewarding record. It offers a wide canvas, a rich palette (rock and soul, fast and slow), and a strong theme: that even those who are born to run must come to rest.
Its 20 tracks were populist enough to give the Boss his first hit, Hungry Heart, as well as lasting crowd-pleasers like Ramrod and the title track. The River ripples with the energy of rock’n’roll, but rather than pouring that into rebellion, the lyrics reconcile it with growing up and settling down. As Springsteen says, with majestic simplicity, on the song that sums it all up: ‘You can’t walk away / From the price you pay.’
There are love songs, but they too are grown-up. ‘I wanna marry you,’ Springsteen sings, casually broaching a subject that was taboo to the Stones – and disclosing that the girl he loves is ‘raising two kids alone’. Mick Jagger had children by now, and Springsteen didn’t, but he was the one who found a way to marry the music with taking responsibility. For him, it wasn’t only rock’n’roll. In his narratives, not even a teenager is carefree: ‘for my 19th birthday,’ he mutters on the title track, ‘I got a union card and a wedding coat.’
Now, 35 years after its release, The River is back as a box set. Containing four discs of music and two films – a complete concert from the period, and a new documentary – as well as a 148-page book, this is not so much an album, more a volume of autobiography.
The documentary is beautifully done. Springsteen, now 66, sits in his yard, sometimes his kitchen (so tidy it’s probably part of his studio rather than his home), and talks about the making of the album, digging out memories undimmed by the years. Again and again, his thoughts lead him to break into song. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he sings softly, subtly, wisely and wistfully, as if his younger self has turned into Johnny Cash. The River still runs through him.
It was very nearly a single album. Springsteen had two sides done and dusted, and even delivered to his record company, before asking if he could have it back, to revise and expand. These days, they might have refused, but back then doubles were normal enough (ELO’s Out Of The Blue, Pink Floyd’s The Wall) and Columbia may have felt that it could have been worse: another of their acts, The Clash, were busy making a triple album, Sandinista!
The shorter version of The River appears here, and the surprise is how similar they are. Seven of the ten tracks are on both, including humdingers like Hungry Heart, The Price You Pay and The River itself. The three that were shelved are interesting, but only one of them, the chiming, piercing Be True, would have added anything.
The same applies to the disc of out-takes. Song after song is decent, vibrant, well worth hearing if you’re a fan, but none makes you doubt the young Boss’s judgment. By letting it flow, he got The River just right, adding light (Independence Day) and shade (Point Blank), with a twist of desire (Ramrod).
Alongside the documentary, the pleasure here lies in rediscovering the original record, which occupies the first two discs. However much we love them, we tend not to play elderly double albums in their entirety. Sitting through this one is like revisiting The Deer Hunter or re-reading Martin Amis’s Money: plunging into a part of your youth that turns out to be just as good as you remember.
The greatest music opens up a channel to your heart you didn’t know was there. The River did that for me, and now I can see why.