In the fall of 1979, Bruce Springsteen had a follow-up to 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town prepared for release. The 10-track collection, recorded with The E Street Band, mainly focused on relationships and included versions of two songs that would prove to be seminal for the songwriter. One was its centerpiece, “The River,” a mournful, country-tinged ballad inspired by the trials of his sister and brother-in-law amid the late-1970s construction industry crash. The other, “Hungry Heart,” an inviting pop song with throwback stylings, would become Springsteen’s first single to reach the Billboard Top 10. Despite this album’s winning building blocks, and a clever bit of sequencing that had it open with a track entitled “The Ties That Bind” and close with one called “Loose Ends,” Springsteen felt that the collection “lacked the kind of unity and conceptual intensity I liked my music to have,” he wrote in his 1998 book, Songs.
Springsteen withdrew the album and decided to adopt the double album format to accommodate a broader range of tones and themes. There also was the nagging, elusive challenge of harnessing the electricity of his live shows and capturing it on record. He continued to write profusely—haunting ballads, raucous garage rockers—and the recording sessions with the band, which began in March 1979 in New York City, lasted through May 1980. The completed double album, The River, was released in October 1980 and quickly became Springsteen’s first to reach Number One on the Billboard 200. The chart successes of “Hungry Heart” and The River were validating milestones for the then 31-year-old rocker, who had been championed by critics since the early ’70s and built a passionate cult following with his dynamic live performances, but had yet to find a foothold on Top 40 radio.
Four years later, the victories achieved by The River were dwarfed by the triumph of Born in the U.S.A., and over the course of the next 30 years, that canonic LP and other titles in The Boss’ prolific career would eventually overshadow The River. His acoustic 1982 album, Nebraska, which consisted of bleak four-track cassette recordings, found favor with a new generation of songwriters in the ’90s as well as a niche of indie-centric music listeners who appreciated its DIY ethos. In concert, Springsteen continued to lean heavily on songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town and his 1975 breakthrough classic, Born to Run, while neglecting more than a handful of The River’s most compelling tracks. Songs such as “Jackson Cage,” “Stolen Car,” “The Price You Pay,” and “Drive All Night” largely have been ignored.
However, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection remedies this. The box-set reissue includes the original 1980 double album, the abandoned 1979 single album, 22 studio outtakes, a one-hour 2015 documentary interview with Springsteen titled The Ties That Bind, and the jewel in the crown: two hours and 40 minutes of a November 1980 concert in Tempe, Ariz., professionally shot to video by a four-camera crew.
The concert took place the night after Ronald Reagan’s first election to presidency, and Springsteen commented on the landslide results prior to singing his defiant Darkness on the Edge of Town anthem, “Badlands.” “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it´s pretty frightening,” he told the audience. That particular performance of “Badlands” appeared on his 1986 live box set, Live/1975-85, sans the spoken intro. For decades, fans have yearned to see footage from this show, as only snippets of images have surfaced through the years. Now, with the release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, 24 complete songs from the show are seeing the light of day. In addition, the set offers 20 minutes of tour rehearsal footage from 1980.
On its own, the material included in the set—spanning four CDs and three DVDs (two Blu-ray) —is impressive. Remarkably, the sessions for The River continue to yield rewarding and surprising tracks that had yet to surface on bootlegs, such as meditative piano lament, “Stray Bullet.” The problem is that 31 of the box’s 52 audio tracks already have been officially released. On the heels of Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Vol.12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966, it feels like Springsteen could be offering more demos and alternate takes for the completists who’ve already bought many of these songs at least once before.
The 10-track collection that Springsteen discarded in 1979 is presented here as The River: Single Album. Although seven of its tracks would appear in varying alternate forms on The River, it feels quaint as a successor to Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run. The addition of somber songs such as “Independence Day,” “Point Blank,” “Drive All Night” and “Wreck on the Highway,” along with lively rockers “Sherry Darling,” “Cadillac Ranch,” and “Ramrod,” expanded the emotional scope of what became Springsteen’s fifth album.
Skeptics of The River suggest a lack of cohesion, befuddled by its mingling of tones. Brooding, introspective ballads sit alongside upbeat, sometimes comical rockers imbued with pop idealism. In a 1980 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Springsteen explained that he at one time had been of the same mindset, wondering how a romantic party song such as “Sherry Darling” could co-exist with the noir “Point Blank.” “I couldn’t face that,” he said. “I wasn’t ready, for some reason within myself, to feel those things. It was too confusing, too paradoxical. But I finally got to a place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them.”
The contrasting ideals that surface throughout The River infuse the album with sustained tension. The River begins and ends with people being hurt. Opening track “The Ties That Bind” pulls back the curtains on a scene where a brokenhearted woman is pushing a crowd of pedestrians out of her way. Closing song “Wreck on the Highway” concludes with a man embracing his woman in bed while being haunted by the memory of a roadside fatality. In between, Springsteen examines the pros and cons of freedom and commitment, the risks and casualties that come with relationships, and the tragedy of a life unfulfilled. Some characters are being contained, others are breaking out. Either way, they’re bound to pay a cost for their choices and circumstances, if they haven’t already. Mortality looms intermittently.
As with each of the albums Springsteen released from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle in 1973 to Tunnel of Love in 1987, The River is masterfully sequenced, with pairings of songs playing off each other throughout. The stark piano ballad, “Point Blank,” which opens The River’s second disc (side three on vinyl), is followed by “Cadillac Ranch,” a twangy, jubilant rocker that name-checks Burt Reynolds and his Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit. The two songs might feel at odds emotionally, but both allude to death.
The first half of The River is frontloaded with rockers that deal with breaking out of seclusion and making connections. Throughout the album’s latter half, there’s a pervasive struggle against impermanence as the rockers become less frequent, “Ramrod” being a last stand against the twilight of youth. In The Ties That Bind, Springsteen describes the album’s last four songs (“Ramrod,” “The Price You Pay,” “Drive All Night,” and “Wreck on the Highway”) as summational, referring to them as goodbyes. With its last three songs, The River begins to slow like a car exiting the freeway, the point where it feels natural to turn the radio down. By the end, the characters of “Drive All Night” and “Wreck on the Highway” seek out the comfort of their lovers and the safety of their beds.
The Ties That Bind is an intimate, reflective film wherein Springsteen offers insight into both his big-picture perspective on songwriting when he was turning 30 as well as glimpses into the minutiae of the recording process. His commentary is supplemented by quiet, solo-acoustic performances of “Two Hearts,” “The River,” “Independence Day,” and “Wreck on the Highway,” the latter uncannily reminiscent of his 1987 video for “Brilliant Disguise.” But, at 20 songs, The River is Springsteen’s most complex album with the E Street Band and warrants more than an hour of discussion.
Thom Zimny, who also helmed the making-of documentaries Wings for Wheels (for Born to Run) and The Promise (for Darkness on the Edge of Town) returns to direct this documentary. Those films each ran about 30 minutes longer, incorporating interviews with band members, engineers and other collaborators, along with archive footage from the studio sessions. This time, Zimny didn’t have any video from The River studio sessions at his disposal, so he relied on still photos and tour rehearsal footage. The approach works well, and as an editor, Zimny has a flair for highlighting Springsteen music’s to help drive the narrative, sometimes unveiling lyrics on screen or reducing a multi-track, full-band recording to a single, isolated track, such as Springsteen’s live vocal on “The River” from the Tempe concert.
Still, the story of The River deserves much further investigation, as well as the participation of E Street Band members, particularly guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who was a co-producer on the album. Van Zandt injects resonant excitement into the recordings, particularly with his frayed backing vocals, steering Springsteen away from the cumbersome double-tracked vocals that burdened some of his earlier rockers, and reinforcing a rowdy band dynamic.
A highlight of The Ties That Bind is when Springsteen describes “Hungry Heart” as tragic and whimsical before singing the lyric, “I met her in a Kingstown bar / We fell in love, I knew it had to end,” and then observing, “That’s funny!” Even funnier is that Springsteen, who couldn’t crack the Top 20 on the singles chart with his classic anthems “Born to Run” and “Badlands,” reached the Top 5 with a song that begins dishearteningly: “I got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back.” The vocal on the track barely sounds like Springsteen. In his enthusiastic review of The River for Los Angeles Times in 1980, Steve Pond wrote that the song would have been “even more appealing if Springsteen’s voice hadn’t been artificially altered, presumably to take off some rough edges and thus make him likelier fodder for pop radio.”
Springsteen has been notoriously slow to share live video from his archives, and has teased fans with footage from Tempe as far back as 1986, when snippets were used in TV commercials to promote Live/1975-85. It’s maddening that it took 35 years to release anything from the Tempe show. MTV launched in August of 1981, and Springsteen’s boisterous performance of “Cadillac Ranch” from Tempe would have been an excellent choice for a video to promote The River as its tour was winding down.
The camera angles during the Tempe show are not always optimal. One camera is too frequently drawn to Van Zandt, and the floor cameraman loses a prime position for a stretch, photographing Springsteen in close-up as his microphone obscures half of his face. While it’s possible that Zimny, who also edited the concert footage, might have been limited by his options, his cuts are sometimes curious and seemingly ill timed. We see some alluring alternate angles from the concert during the documentary; one of the most exciting images from the Live/1975-85 commercial, of Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons pouncing toward the camera during “Cadillac Ranch,” is used in the doc but bypassed for another angle during the concert. Nonetheless, the footage is especially rousing when Springsteen is on the move. “Out in the Street,” “Rosalita,” and “The Detroit Medley” offer persuasive evidence to the claim that Springsteen is the greatest live performer that rock and roll has produced.