3 Decades Later, Re-Exploring Bruce Springsteen’s Landmark 1980 Album ‘The River'

Bruce Springsteen (center) working on recording his 1980 album "The River." (Joel Bernstein)
Bruce Springsteen (center) working on recording his 1980 album "The River." (Joel Bernstein)

“I was trying to figure where I fit in in the broader community,” Bruce Springsteen recently said of his 1980 double-album “The River.” “By the time I got to ‘The River,’ I think I noticed that the things that bind people to their lives or their commitments — family, love — I wanted to imagine and write about those things.”

Springsteen went on at his Jan. 19 concert in Chicago, “I figured if I could write about [them], maybe I could get one step closer to having them in my own life, so that’s what I did. I wanted to make a big record, a big record that felt like life, like life for an E Street Band show. I wanted the record to contain fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, politics, sex, good comradeship, love, faith, lonely nights and of course tears. And I figured if I could make a record big enough to contain those things, maybe I’d edge a little closer to the answers and the home I was trying to find.”

Come Thursday night, Feb. 4, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will unleash “The River” upon an ecstatic audience for a sold-out show at TD Garden in Boston.

When news first came that they would be touring, but focusing on an album recorded 35 years ago, there was both delight and a combination of surprise and puzzlement. Delight because, hey, this was “The River,” a double-studio album of lasting quality. Surprise and puzzlement because when he tours, Springsteen typically puts the focus on new work, liberally mixing those newbies with songs from his expansive catalog, shaking up set lists every night.

Why this? Why now?

“It was a surprise to us, too, you know?” Springsteen told the dedicated Springsteen zine “We were kind of heading on a slightly different path — I had some new music, which was a little more of a solo record. I thought that I'd be out [on tour] on that next. But then the [‘Ties That Bind: The River Collection’] box set came out, and we started to fool around with the idea of playing maybe a show … then, well, maybe two shows … and that turned into a short leg that we have going here in the States. It's a chance to let people experience the record start to finish, which we've only played once before.”

I’m not sure which band first discovered the audience-appealing concept of structuring concerts to feature one of their best (old) albums, with songs played sequentially. But bands in virtually all genres are now doing it.

Regarding Springsteen and “The River,” it’s one of his best and most important albums — a double-album that, back in the day, suggested a certain depth of material and confidence the audience would be there to buy it.

Actually, there is Springsteen-ian precedent. He has played the “Born to Run” album occasionally, start-to-finish, beginning in 2008, although a show was never billed as such. It’s worth noting here that when Springsteen plays “The River” this week, you’re going to get much more, at least another 10 songs. “Born to Run,” “Because the Night,” “Badlands,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Candy’s Room” and “Thunder Road” have all shown up on this tour.

There’s unquestionably a promotional aspect, too with “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection” upon us. “The River” is new all over again. It’s music that matters, yes, but it’s also music he’s selling. The box goes for around $90 and consists of four CDs with 52 songs: the 20-song original album, 11 previously unreleased out-takes from “The River’ sessions, and one CD that’s a 10-track effort called “The River — Single Album.” The latter is what Springsteen originally intended to release before he got expansive and turned “The River” into a double LP; this disc has three songs not included on the original “The River.” Plus two DVDs: “The Ties the Bind,” a documentary on the making of, and a 1980 concert.

When “The River” was released in 1980, Rolling Stone’s Paul Nelson termed it “a contemporary New Jersey version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ with the Tom Joad/Henry Fonda figure — nowadays no longer able to draw upon the solidarity of family — driving a stolen car through a neon Dust Bowl …”

Maybe that sounds like overreach, but it was certainly prescient. Springsteen would deal more directly with that theme on the stark and spare follow-up album “Nebraska” and particularly the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

But “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the album before “The River,” suggested Springsteen was moving away from the epic, mythic songs of runaway American dreams, stories about cars and girls writ large. Not entirely, mind you. On “The River,” there’s the basic-value, old-school pop pleasure of “Sherry Darling,” “Two Hearts,” “Hungry Heart,” “Crush on You” and “I’m a Rocker.” But consider one of the open road songs, “Stolen Car.” Springsteen sings, “I ride all night and I travel in fear.” On the album’s closer, “Wreck on the Highway,” the protagonist is driving again and comes upon a car crash — “There’s blood and glass all over/And nobody there but me” — and when he goes home at night to hold his woman it haunts his dreams.

In his 2012 bio, “Bruce,” Peter Ames Carlin writes “The River” was “set adrift of opposing currents of ecstasy and dread.” Springsteen had been here before, of course, but the mix was more pronounced, the singer-songwriter finding some of those youthful dreams could crash head on into the wall of adult reality. As was (and remains) the pattern for Springsteen concerts, the singer would spin some dark tales, but the music would provide the uplift with that surge of guitars-drums-bass-sax-and-keyboards.

Not always. Side two ends with the metaphor of the title track, where the river once embraced by the two young lovers as an escape becomes a place that’s dried up, with the couple’s dreams dashed, crushed by an unwanted pregnancy, a dead-end factory job and numbing routine. The song that kicks off Side 3, the stark, piano-led ballad “Point Blank,” was Springsteen’s most wrenching, despairing song to date. It nearly brings tears when I listen to it now. “You wake up and you’re dying and you don’t even know what from,” sings Springsteen. “They shot you point blank, right between the eyes … ”

On this tour, it’s Springsteen with his E Street band: guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, organist Charlie Giordano and saxophonist Jake Clemons once again stepping into the key spot played for so long by his late uncle Clarence. Soozie Tyrell handles violin, guitar and backup vocals; Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa also does backup vocals and rhythm guitar.

Though “The River” and “Point Blank” are the album’s centerpieces, it is, mostly, a hard rocking album, filled with stripped down bar-band rock, music without the Phil Spector-ish epic grandeur of “Born the Run.” It may be the studio album that sounds closest to the way Springsteen and the E Street Band sound in concert. None of these songs sound like artifacts of a bygone era. I’m looking forward to hearing them played out in the rock arena again, the cathedral of Bruce.

Jim Sullivan is a former Boston Globe arts and music staff writer who pens the arts-events website and contributes to various publications, TV and radio outlets. He hosts the monthly music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk” on Xfinity On Demand. Find him on Twitter at @jimsullivanink.

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Jim Sullivan Music Writer
Jim Sullivan writes about rock 'n' roll and other music for WBUR.



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