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2023/4 Albums Thing 331 - Bruce Springsteen “The River”

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Bruce Springsteen signed with Columbia Records as a solo artist. Although his name is forever tied to the E Street Band none of his (studio) albums are by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, only Bruce Springsteen. Singer and band were inducted separately into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (even though members of the band lobbied hard that it should be together). The E Street Band are integral to Springsteen’s mojo but he has always kept a separation between Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. 

“The River” though, is Bruce and the band’s band album. A record that tries to capture what they do on stage, in the studio. A record that tells you about years and years of one night stands in Boardwalk bars and the musicians it made of this bands members. It’s borne out of endless repetitions of “Louie Louie” and “I Fought The Law” for the drinkers and the dancers. But it also tells you about the troubles of those drinkers and dancers when the rave-ups calm down and its quieter, with only the band, the bartender and the lost and lonely left at the bar. To balance out “Sherry Darlings” exuberance there is “Stolen Car”s loss and regret, For all of “Crush On You” and “Cadillac Ranch”s bravado there are the lives that didn’t turn out as planned in “Point Blank” and "Fade Away”. 

Side 1 is an adrenaline rush of 60’s garage band euphoria. “The Ties That Bind”, “Sherry Darling”, “Jackson Cage” and particularly “Two Hearts” thunder along but are bought back down at the end by Springsteen’s first truly great song about his relationship with his father. “Independence Day” tells of a father and son relationship that knows each of their importance to each other but cannot be contained in close proximity. A father set in his ways and a son that wants more out of life but which are still the things a father wants for his son. It’s a brutally honest look at Springsteen’s connection with his Dad and one of the songs he feels is at the heart of what “The River” is about.

Side 2 gets back to that bar band we know so well. “Hungry Heart” was the albums lead single, Springsteen’s first big hit single and still a huge song in his live shows where the crowd always take the first verse before The Boss picks up the chorus. Then we’re back to that garage band feel with “Out In The Street”, “Crush On You” and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" before the garage ballad of “I Wanna Marry You” which gives you a picture of the barroom lovers dancing in a spotlight while the band plays….and then…  

The first half of the album ends with the song “The River”. The opening harmonica wail sets the tone and I’m betting that at a live show every hair on the back of every neck on every person stands up and every one gets that shiver. He’s played “The River” on seven of the eight occasions I’ve seen him live, there’s only “Born To Run” I’ve heard all eight times so it’s clear how important the song is to Springsteen himself. It’s a song of love and hope and despair, yes at its heart it’s the story of his sister and her husband but here Springsteen also starts introducing some of the themes he’ll expand on in a few years time, we’re all proud Americans but The USA we were born into isn’t working for us. This is another Bruce Springsteen, he’s still singing about cars and girls but in a very different way to how he dealt with those subjects on “Born To Run”. I’d argue this song is where the Bruce Springsteen we’ve come to know since the mid-80’s mega stardom of “Born In The USA” begins.

The second half is a little more subdued. You still get the bar band garage rockers like live favourites “Cadillac Ranch”, “Ramrod” and “I’m A Rocker”, but there are far more of the slower, introspective songs in part two. The superb “Stolen Car”, “Fade Away” and “Wreck On The Highway” stand out. Side Four is however home to what is almost certainly my least favourite of Springsteen’s songs, “Drive All Night”. It’s an eight and a half minute dirge about what I recall as driving all night to buy your girl some shoes (I know that’s not what it’s about but that’s what it feels like). 

We went to see Springsteen in Kilkenny in Ireland in 2013 on the Wrecking Ball tour. One of the reasons for going to Ireland was that, unusually for Springsteen, there were to be support acts. One of them was Damien Dempsey which we were incredibly excited about and the other was Glen Hansard of The Frames (and maybe more famously to most “The Commitments”). Damien was great as always and Glen Hansard played for far too long and I didn’t really enjoy any of it. Toward the end of his set Springsteen announced he wanted to invite someone out to sing with him. Out trotted Mr Hansard and “Drive All Night” was the song they were to perform. This time a song on record that feels like it lasts a lifetime dragged on for what I swear were several of them, hells teeth I thought it would never end !

“The River” marks a change in Bruce Springsteen. His next album won’t feature a band at all, the one after that will shoot him into the “pop” mainstream and after that he becomes quite the changed character. Part of that is a reaction to that elevation to being a “pop” star that he really didn’t like and part of it stems from the breakdown he suffered during this whole period which he documents in his biography “Born To Run” (well worth a read BTW). We’re in the eye of the period where Springsteen is developing into one of the great songwriters of our times, and he’s still working it all out.

Stolen Car - https://youtu.be/f0RNWwXcQiU?si=dd-D8T5tl5MoOgnw

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