It may seem weird to call an 84-minute, 2-song double album “small,” but that’s absolutely The River. I mentioned in the previous review that Darkness at the Edge of Town was an expansion of Born to Run‘s universe, and if that’s true, The River, despite being literally twice the length of either of those albums, represents a contraction of sorts, both sonically and thematically. This is, let me be clear, a good thing–a great thing, in fact, and something that puts The River at the very upper echelons of Bruce Springsteen’s discography.
Sonically, this album is a look back (and a nostalgic one at that) on the relative better times of the pre-Darkness era’s mix of soul, R&B, and especially rock and roll. Whereas the previous album’s sound was nervy and hard, The River presents a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band much readier to party, evoking the live-sounding recordings of Born to Run‘s propulsive anthems and even the bar-band shagginess of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle‘s summer jams. There’s no “Adam Raised a Cain” here; Bruce’s vocals are mixed with an outdoorsy reverb, and back are the warm, triumphant Danny Federici organs and Clarence Clemons saxophones that sounded so world-conquering on Born to Run. Crucially, though, these songs are filtered through Springsteen’s growing professionalism in songwriting. Those first three Springsteen albums are scrappy and rough-around-the-edges, which is fitting of their outsized, devil-may-care emotional beats. But The River continues the trend toward concision and contemplation begun with Darkness, and it’s with this album that it reaches a sort of perfection that the remainder of Springsteen’s ’80s albums would use as a blueprint: a shiny pop-rock with country-tinged songwriting precision and R&B-infused performances. Bruce’s lyrical ambitions reached for more emotional precision to accommodate the ambiguity on Darkness that the whirlwind Born to Run approach would surely have eclipsed and flattened. So it makes sense that The River, Bruce’s most emotionally nuanced and precise album to date, would also sport his tightest and most conventional-sounding music yet.
And that’s where the second aspect of The River‘s contraction comes into play. Darkness on the Edge of Town is an album whose songs are obsessed with the passage of time, exploring the way that looking at the effects of Thunder-Road-isms in the long term; The River is concerned with those very same effects, but–with the exception of the title song, which tracks the slow crushing of one couple’s dreams over the passage of a few years until “memories come back to haunt” the narrator–the album’s songs are a procession of moments that present the inescapable paradoxes of the Springsteen protagonist worldview from a variety of angles. It is a record with a penchant for the lyrical, in the poetic sense of the word that finds meaning in the complexity of emotions and images at a given point of time. And not just any set of emotions. The River further contracts the scope of Darkness to one central and all-encompassing conflict: that of freedom versus love, individuality versus community, autonomy versus stability–however you want to frame it: that debilitating feeling that a man (and on The River, it’s almost always a man) faces knowing that dreams and human connection are competing pathologies.
This theme comes front-and-center right out of the gate; the album opener has Bruce roaring that “you can’t break the ties that bind; you can’t forsake the ties that bind,” beginning already with the magnetism of the longing for the human touch, and this continues throughout the album, sometimes pervertedly (as in the maybe just a little bit sexist [eh… in his autbio, Springsteen talks about the soft misogyny of his rock band, and I imagine this is part of what he’s thinking of ] “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”), sometimes lustily (as in “Ramrod,” in which our fearless protagonist wants to, um, “ramrod with you, honey,” and I don’t think that needs much decoding), sometimes sweetly (as in “I Wanna Marry You”), but no more obviously than in “Hungry Heart.” “Everybody wants to have a home,” the narrator tells us. He is a man who has abandoned his wife and kids in Baltimore. He goes on: “Don’t make no difference what nobody says; ain’t nobody like to be alone.”
But the hungry heart of the title (and chorus) of that song is sharply ambivalent; sure, his heart hungers for his family, but the song doesn’t let us forget that it’s he who abandoned his family, not the other way around. And for what? “I went out for a ride, and I never came back.” Hunger for human companionship, for sure, but also for adventure, for freedom, for control. This is it, the great self-imposed curse of the human architecture: that bifurcated hunger pulling the heart in two until it spouts blood. It’s all over the album: “There’s something happy and there’s something sad ’bout wanting somebody oh so bad,” Springsteen sings on “I Wanna Marry You.” “The River,” the song, shows a couple tied to one another and bitterly unhappy at the prospects narrowed by their commitment, forced by economic hardship and unplanned pregnancy. “I’m a Rocker” is as close to unchained id as Springsteen ever comes, ricocheting wildly between glorying in the freedom allowed him by his fame and the earnest desire to find love in the woman he addresses. These are all things touched on in Darkness on the Edge of Town. But the laser focus on the subject is unique to The River. This is an album about relationships, a topic it bores into with single-minded, piercing insight, and out comes the richest writing of Bruce Springsteen’s career.
And besides, The River has something that’s never found in Darkness on the Edge of Town, and that’s the three-song suite that ends the album. Darkness is an album of frustration and cynicism mixing uneasily with optimism in a way that never really settles into comfortable, and for a while, it seems that the central conflict here is driving The River to a similar place. But then arrive the final three songs–“The Price You Pay,” “Drive All Night,” and “Wreck on the Highway”–and with them one of the most surprising and beautiful turns on any Bruce Springsteen work: the conflict resolves. “Make up your mind, you choose the chance you take,” begins “The Price You Pay,” and it’s the clearest ultimatum laid down either here or on Darkness: “You can’t walk away from the price you pay.” You, the album is saying here with a mournful conviction, can choose to ruin your life on a dream or take care of those you love, and if you choose the former, there is a clear and irrevocable price. Bruce has never issued a firmer refutation of Born to Run, and it might come across as overly harsh except that, unbelievably, the next two songs actually follow through on the advice. In “Drive All Night,” the narrator rejects his freedom and declares, among cries that “you’ve got my love, heart, and soul,” that he’ll drive all night back to his woman. It’s the only instance in Bruce’s discography where an automobile–the ultimate symbol of freedom in Springsteenland–takes its driver back toward domesticity, and the fact that that’s presented so unambiguously positively doubles down on this subversion of tropes.
And then there’s the album closer, “Wreck on the Highway,” a gorgeously spare, organ-tinged ballad that brings this resolution to a definitive close. A man in a presumably stable relationship (perhaps the very same man from “Drive All Night”) is driving home from work when he comes across a car accident in which its victim, another man (a “young man,” the narrator specifies), screams for his help. He stays with the man until the ambulance comes, imagining a state trooper arriving at the victim’s house to tell his wife or girlfriend that he has died. And then the narrator returns home to his own wife; he hugs her tightly, and as the album ends, he’s lying awake, unable to shake the memory of the wreck. The universe has presented him with an alternate-universe version of himself, and it has told him this: that death is the ultimate price you pay. Our longings for freedom and human connection are all rooted in the deep, deep desire to escape the terror that both men unearth in the song, of staring mortality in the eye and coming to grips with the fact that there is nothing left except what has already happened. There’s no escaping death, with this song, the choices of the album are put to their starkest core realities: what is it that you would like to have at your life’s end? According to the song, there is a right answer here. When death comes for you, it’s family you’ll want. With “Wreck on the Highway,” a Springsteen narrator is, for once, given that answer before it is too late.
With the sound of the album’s delicate organ outro–but no less powerfully than that snare-drum kick in Bruce’s own favorite, Dylan–another kind of door, a second one previously overshadowed by Born to Run‘s bluster, is opened. And it’s one of the most beautiful things.