Bruce Springsteen’s The River is an album obsessed with the idea of legacy. Released in 1980, the two-record set was a grand ode to the sound of classic 1950s and 60s rock, landing on store shelves in the midst of an economic recession that made the optimism of yesterday seem more and more distant. Beyond aesthetics, the album’s lyrics explore the effects that family and birthplace can have on someone’s life, a personal legacy of sorts that is passed on from generation to generation. So while 2020 is a year full of E Street fanfare (including the upcoming release of Springsteen’s 20th studio album Letter to You later this month), looking back at The River and its own legacy is perhaps the most quintessential Bruce experience possible during our current moment of quarantine.
1980 was a crossroads of sorts in Springsteen’s early career. 1975’s Born to Run was a breakout success (landing Springsteen on the cover of both Newsweek and Time in the same week), but a series of contract disputes prevented the release of any new music in the wake of the album’s release. So although ‘the Boss’ would eventually reach ridiculous levels of stardom with 1984’s Born in the USA, the years after Born to Run’s release were permeated by a feeling of unfulfilled potential. The promise of escape offered in the lyrics of Thunder Road (“It’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of her to win”) now rung hollow.
Yet Springsteen was not devoid of purpose during this transitionary period. In the time between album releases, the E Street Band secured its reputation as a prolific live act, consistently touring around the country at a litany of small venues and college campuses. This led to the widespread recording and distribution of album bootlegs (many of which have since been officially released), which kept the band relevant as they continued to perfect their potent mixture of garageband and operatic rock. It was also a period of great lyrical productivity, as Springsteen continued to write songs even though he was unable to release any. After three years of contract dispute, the album drought finally ended in 1978 with the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Yet even though the album was met with both critical and commercial success, it came nowhere close to generating the same amount of buzz as Born to Run three years prior. It also came nowhere close to releasing all of the songs that Springsteen had written. A follow up to Darkness on the Edge of Town (titled The Ties that Bind) was finished and delivered to the record company, but Bruce scrapped the project right before its release. Instead, he set his sights on an album that could do justice to the vast catalogue of songs he had on reserve and capture the live sound that the E Street Band had been honing throughout the decade. And so, the idea for a two-record set was born.
The River was finally released on October 17, 1980, with a robust 20-song tracklist to back up Springsteen’s grand ambitions. The first track, The Ties that Bind, is a bold reintroduction to the E Street Band, filled to the brim with glorious 12-string guitars and a triumphant saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons. Yet despite the self-assured rock and roll of the E Street Band, the frustration of the past five years is almost immediately evident in Springsteen’s lyrics. He sings, “You been hurt and you’re all cried out you say. You walk down the street pushing people out of your way.” Throughout many of the uptempo songs on the album — Sherry Darling, Jackson Cage, Two Hearts, Out in the Street — these same themes of hurt and frustration are present, forming a sharp juxtaposition with the mostly pop sound of the band’s arrangements.
Springsteen, however, was not the only artist grappling with such themes at the start of the new decade. Acts like The Clash and The Ramones were popularizing the pop-punk sound throughout the later half of the 70s, articulating a general sentiment of discontent with both the culture and sound of mainstream music. The River was released in the midst of this larger moment and is certainly worth viewing as a part of it, but while Springsteen took on many of the same themes as these new acts, he did so by dressing them in the garments of yesteryear. The E Street Band’s sound on The River is an amalgamation of the styles that defined rock’s past, jumping between the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and even some Pete Seeger for good measure. It is an album that explores the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from the position of someone living in 1980, using music as a way to trace back to the root cause of their personal and political problems.
A 1950’s, B-Movie aesthetic is present in many aspects of The River’s design, ranging from the bold font on the album’s cover to the marquee-ready titles of certain songs (Point Blank screams low-budget crime flick). It was not the first time that Springsteen had tapped into this certain breed of nostalgia — the titles for Thunder Road and Born to Run were both themselves derived from forgotten B-pictures — yet the songs on The River carried with them a new sense of dread. In the aforementioned Point Blank, the romance narratives of Hollywood are subverted, giving way to a practical melancholy that was more suitable for the Carter recession. Springsteen sings, “I was gonna be your Romeo, you were gonna be my Juliet. These days you don’t wait on Romeos, you wait on that welfare check.” Similarly, Hungry Heart (the only hit off the album, which impressively broke the top 10) is a comedic take on 1950’s pop music, setting the story of a deadbeat dad to the happy-go-lucky beat of classic doowop. Adding even further to the irony of the song, Springsteen had originally written it for The Ramones, one of the pop-punk bands that The River was a response to.
Throughout The River, the Peter Pan fantasy of rock and roll is forced to grow up and face the economic realities of 1980, a painful yet inevitable process that is most clearly seen in the album’s title track. This theme of inevitability is clear from the song’s first line: “I come from down in the valley, where Mister when you’re young, they bring you up to do, like your daddy done.” What ensues is a haunting tale about an unplanned pregnancy, a dead end job, and an unhappy couple that is unable to reconcile their happy memories with the grave nature of their current situation. At the song’s climax, the narrator asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” It is a question that was applicable to many people’s lives in 1980, including Springsteen’s. While the cover of Born to Run had an optimistic, leather-jacket wearing Bruce looking towards the future, the cover of The River has him staring blankly forward, coming to terms with the broken promises of music, movies, and politics.
The River — both the album and the song — is not only about cultural legacies though, but also the personal legacies that family and relationships create. Bruce Springsteen’s fraught relationship with his father is a topic present across his discography, yet in his more recent work (including his memoir, broadway show, and 2019’s fantastic Western Stars) he has acknowledged that an undiagnosed mental illness was at the root of this issue. Although such illness is never directly confronted, tracks like I Wanna Marry You, Fade Away, and Stolen Car all explore how the spectre of Springsteen’s father hangs heavy over the other relationships in his life (a theme that is also at the heart of 1987’s Tunnel of Love). However, the effect of this relationship is most explored on the heartbreaking track Independence Day. Gently driven forward by organist Danny Federici’s beautiful melody, the song plays out as a lullabye of sorts, framed around a late night conversation between a father and a son. However, the roles are reversed, and now the son is telling the father to go to sleep. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that the son is ready to leave town and start his own life, but he knows that his father will both resent him and be proud of him for leading the life that he was never able to. The narrator is forced to compromise his own dreams for the future with the reality of what those dreams will cost, a theme that rings true throughout the album. Springsteen sings, “So say goodbye it’s Independence Day. Papa I know the things you wanted that you could not say. But won’t you just say goodbye it’s independence day. I swear I never meant to take those things away.”
Across its expansive run time, the characters on The River are all forced to make similar compromises, balancing their hope for the future with an understanding of the legacies that they are subject to. However, this compromise is not always hopeless. On the penultimate track of the album, Drive All Night, Springsteen tells the tale of a loving man who is selflessly dedicated to buying his love a pair of shoes in the middle of the night, despite the snow, wind, rain, and strangers on the edge of town who might impede his journey. Coming in at a whopping 8 minutes and 27 seconds, it is the album’s longest track by far, featuring solos from almost every member of the E Street Band, all recorded live during a single take. It has the grandeur and scope of a perfect finale.
Yet even still, the haunting quality of The River persists. The album’s final track, Wreck on the Highway, is the story of a man who could very well be the same character from Drive All Night. While driving on a dark road, the man comes across the wreckage of another car and helps bring the other driver to safety. When the man returns home to the safety of his family, he is still restless, knowing that on any other night he could have been the one in that accident. The song slowly fades out, leaving both the character and the listener anxious as to what the next day holds, walking a fine line between hard earned happiness and the randomness of tragedy.
Although The River landed Springsteen a hit with Hungry Heart, it still was not the star-making moment he and the E Street Band had been waiting for (for that, they only had to wait until the ridiculous success release of Born in the USA four years later). The two-record set also only made a small dent into the vast catalogue of songs that Springsteen had written during his contract disputes (the box set version of The River released in 2015 included an additional 22 songs, all of which were already written by the time of the album’s original release). Yet even though the album did not quite meet Springsteen’s own grand ambitions, it is still a remarkable work whose expansive scope and sharp criticism act as a wonderful document of the cultural, political, and personal circumstances that surrounded its release. 40 years down the road, The River continues to excite and inspire, exploring the legacies that informed its own creation in a way that still feels insightful in 2020. It offers a nuanced message that delicately balances between hope and realism, which — along with its 83 minute run time — makes it the perfect Springsteen album to play on repeat throughout the long days of quarantine.
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