CK Retro Review: The River by Bruce SpringsteenPosted: April 14, 2014
It’s called The River, but it could have been subtitled Or How Bruce Springsteen Learned to Stop Worrying about Thematic Unity and Love the Pop Song. OK, that’s probably an oversimplification, but it is true that Springsteen used the space afforded him by the 1980 double-album to throw everything he had at the audience. (Or so we thought at the time; little did we know that he still had about 371 songs lying around in the vaults.) The River includes just about everything except, amazingly, not one true clunker in the 20-song pack, and several songs on the album stand among Springsteen’s very best compositions. Here is a song-by-song review.
20. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”- It is to The River’s everlasting credit that its weakest track is this blast of pure fun. It’s admittedly a little slight, maybe even hewing to novelty song territory, but there’s as much a place in the world for a song connecting department store clumsiness and wanton lust as there is for “The River.”
19. “Crush On You”- Springsteen’s attempt at a Stones-style rocker would have been better if he’d gone all the way into the gutter; it’s hard to imagine Jagger sizing up a would-be conquest with something as chaste as “I got a crush on you.” Nonetheless, the abandon of the performance is undeniable. Let’s hope they got it one take, or maybe Bruce must have gotten some larynx-shredding advice from Brian Johnson of AC/DC somewhere along the line.
18. “Ramrod”- The roller-rink organ and Springsteen’s Elvis drawl bring smiles, while the automobile innuendo of the lyrics brings blushes. (All that’s missing is talk of crank shafts.) I’ve never been able to tell if Bruce intended this to be more funny than sexy, because it definitely is, which is fine as well.
17. “Cadillac Ranch”- It may seem like I’m being hard on the good-timey, up-tempo tracks on the album, but I genuinely enjoy them all. Some of them just have a little more spark (like “Hungry Heart” and “Sherry Darling.”) Nonetheless, you can crank this one up in your own vehicle, speed along to Max Weinberg’s humming beat, and make your destination with at least 15 minutes to spare.
16. “Drive All Night”- This sounds like a song that Otis Redding might have taken a whack at back in the day, albeit with Springsteenian touches in the lyrics like “fallen angels” and all-night drives. Though Bruce doesn’t have Redding’s vocal chops, he acquits himself well enough, aided and abetted by fine instrumental support from the band as they adroitly handle the after-hours vibe.
15. “I Wanna Marry You”- Garry Tallent provides the slow-dance bass line and Danny Federici delivers the Italian wedding organ. All that’s left is for Bruce to state his case to his intended on this sweet charmer that has more than a little doo-wop in its DNA.
14. “Fade Away”- Somewhat maligned as the unfortunate choice for the album’s second single, a role it was ill-suited to play, this song deserves a second listen. I think Springsteen actually comes off better here in terms of his soul emoting than he does on “Drive All Night,” which probably enjoys a better reputation. “Fade Away” wasn’t commanding enough for radio, but, as an album track, it’s more than fine.
13. “Out In The Street”- Blessed with a wonderful chorus and some killer instrumental hooks, this is the one that might have been the right choice to follow up “Hungry Heart” and solidify Springsteen’s chart status. Whereas Darkness On The Edge Of Town features protagonists hopelessly trapped by their professions, this is one of several songs on The River where people find a way to rise above the drudgery of their work routine. A song that works best in large groups.
12. “I’m A Rocker”- Crammed with more pop culture references than a Family Guy marathon, it highlights Springsteen’s winningly hambone sense of humor, an underrated part of his allure which had been underutilized, on record anyway, since his first two albums. But this one rocks too hard to be just a lark, as Max Weinberg provides the thunder and Roy Bittan, doubling on organ here, adds the color.
11. “Two Hearts”- One of the distinguishing characteristics of the album is the prevalence of Steven Van Zandt’s backing vocals, and this is the song where his presence is most acutely felt. His harmonies aren’t neat or polite, but they are wild and passionate, and that’s what this song, which promotes the benefits of company over misery, requires. Give credit to the band here as well, as they tackle this thing at a whiplash pace without ever getting disheveled.
10. “Jackson Cage”- Tight, tough, and truthful, this crackerjack track is part character sketch, part desperate plea from a kindred soul. One of the things that Springsteen displayed on this album was his ability to economize his themes and obsessions. In this case, the subject matter is the deadening effect of small-town life, so subtle and insidious that it eventually tricks you into being an accomplice in your own imprisonment. It takes just verses and refrains to Bruce to nail every nuance.
9. “The Ties That Bind”- Springsteen and Van Zandt’s love for 60’s pop music is evident here, as their guitars chime and interweave like the latter-day Searchers. The only difference is that The Searchers didn’t have access to King Curtis to add a little soul, while Bruce and Steve had Clarence. A great power-pop opener that smacks the audience awake and sets the tone for the thrilling ride to come.
8. “Point Blank”- The elegant melancholy of Roy Bittan’s piano work here is quite effective, setting the tone on this moody change of pace all the way to its tragic conclusion. The music builds the drama in concert with the lyrics, which begin with childhood prayers and end up in a figurative homicide. Springsteen knows how to structure things just so; in this case, the final stanza is the gut punch, as the narrator contrasts a memory/reverie of better times with the girl’s current sorry state in the elongating shadows.
7. “Wreck On The Highway”- Tear-jerkers about death via vehicular accident were a staple of early rock and roll; think melodramatic quasi-novelties like “Leader Of The Pack” or “Last Kiss.” “Wreck On The Highway” doesn’t manipulate with some ornate back story, and the crash it describes ends up being all the more terrifying for not having a moral or a lesson attached to it. The randomness of cruel fate is something that could keep anyone awake at nights when confronted with it first-hand, even with the warm glass of milk that is Danny Federici’s organ on hand to soothe and reassure.
6. “Sherry Darling”- It sounds like there were about 313 inebriated visitors in the studio for the recording of the song, but Springsteen holds it all together with the pure force of his personality. He also gets off a nifty little surf guitar solo on top of that. Anyone who’s ever had a miserable in-law can sympathize with Bruce’s addled narrator and live vicariously through his hilarious insults. Barely-organized, wonderful chaos.
5. “The Price You Pay”- One of those Springsteen arrangements where the music seems to crescendo over and over again to exhilarating effect. Here Bruce sings not only the steadfast main melody but also the ghostly high harmonies, embodying resilience and anguish all at once. This is one of the vaguer sets of lyrics in the man’s catalog. The little parables sprinkled seem to parallel the lengths to which we all go to make an honest stand, as the man once said, but the title suggests that there are always consequences involved. Springsteen doesn’t want to leave us on a downer though, which is why his narrator makes the defiant gesture at the end and tears down the symbolic scoreboard counting the fallen. Enigmatic yet enthralling.
4. “Hungry Heart”- From Max’s opening drum roll, you’re pretty much hooked on this one, right? Give credit to Jon Landau for seeing the worth in the song and preventing Bruce from giving it away to The Ramones (not the last time he would serve this role as the Mariano Rivera of saving would-be Springsteen hits from nearly getting away.) Leave some praise for Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan for bringing just the right 60’s dream-pop vibe with their backing vocals. But ultimately Springsteen earned this first big chart success himself with a song that encourages us to sing along with that unstoppable refrain so that we can all be lonely together.
3. “Stolen Car”- Springsteen the rocker, Springsteen the folkie, and Springsteen the live performer all get way more press than Springsteen the studio craftsman, which is a shame, if you ask me. “Stolen Car” conjures haunted desolation mainly through Bruce’s distant electric strumming, Roy Bittan’s evocative piano fills, and Danny Federici’s spectral organ. Again, economy in the writing: There is much more between the lines than what is actually revealed about this deteriorating relationship. Think of this as the same guy from “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” only here he is in the process of losing his wife. Bruce makes this part of his downward spiral harrowing yet beautiful.
2. “Independence Day”- Just two years after the forceful demon-exorcising of “Adam Raised A Cain”, Springsteen was much more willing to see both sides of the father-son coin. His narrator is getting out, make no doubt about it, but he’s far more ready to show understanding than to lay blame. All of this is mirrored by the tenderness of the music, featuring one of Clarence Clemons’ most poignant saxophone solos. There might be some sort of physical independence in the offing, but it’s doubtful, based on the tone of this classic, that the son will ever get completely clear of his father’s looming shadow.
1. “The River”- Springsteen’s ability to get inside his hardscrabble characters had already been well-established by this point, but he nails it on another level here. The title track works both as social commentary and as an individual story of two people whose lives change in an instant from brimming with youthful possibilities to the cold shower of responsibility. Springsteen bravely describes the honest reaction of his narrator, who can’t see forward to potential happiness with his new family, only backward to dreams that misled him into believing in life’s promise. No one has ever written this resonant, American slice-of-life stuff better than Springsteen (off the top of my head only John Prine gives him a run for his money), and “The River” is a standout even in that rarefied air.
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