BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: THE RIVER (1980)
1) The Ties That Bind; 2) Sherry Darling; 3) Jackson Cage; 4) Two Hearts; 5) Independence Day; 6) Hungry Heart; 7) Out In The Street; 8) Crush On You; 9) You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch); 10) I Wanna Marry You; 11) The River; 12) Point Blank; 13) Cadillac Ranch; 14) I'm A Rocker; 15) Fade Away; 16) Stolen Car; 17) Ramrod; 18) The Price You Pay; 19) Drive All Night; 20) Wreck On The Highway.
How do I put this right? Basically, with this album Bruce Springsteen was pretty much over as a major artistic force. He himself admitted that The River more or less shaped out and defined his songwriting style for the rest of his career, and there is indeed a bigger barrier between Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River than between any other two subsequent albums in his life, including all the great ones and all the real shitty ones.
As the «album rock» era drew to a close and the hit single (and, fairly soon, the hit video) reclaimed its positions in the early Eighties, Springsteen and Landau chose the «top» road over the «bottom» road — which meant intentionally dumbing it down in search of mass appeal. There are still patches of uncomfortable darkness on The River, and a few clever songwriting ideas, but for the most part, this is by far the least musically interesting record he'd done to date. Never mind that it is a double LP and that we should expect some filler on a double LP — from a purely songwriting perspective, I would dare say that most of these tunes are filler. Remember all those Roy Bittan piano riffs on Darkness that could be perceived as intelligently composed and inspired? Not a single one like that here. Instead, all we get is variations on all sorts of classic rockabilly, folk rock, and Phil Spector progressions — very blatant variations at that, because The River is not about music-making, it is all about image codification.
This time, we are ʽOut In The Streetʼ again, with the «blue collar life philosophy» thrown right in our face by the simplest, straightforwardest, brawniest of means. ʽI'm A Rockerʼ, the Boss tells us in his cockiest track so far, which sounds like an Eddie Cochran number updated Eighties-style, with a triumphant, exuberant, over-the-top-joyful delivery that basically screams out, "this, boys and girls, is how real rock'n'roll is supposed to be done today!"... well, guess some people are entitled to a different opinion. And this is not even the over-the-top exuberance of ʽBorn To Runʼ: it is something... cheaper. In all respects — the lyrics, the vocals, the instrumentation, the renewed application of the same formula with more predictability and less trepidation. And these joyous «rockers» come one after another, one after another, and they're all pretty much the same. Is there really any big difference between ʽCrush On Youʼ and ʽCadillac Ranchʼ, or between ʽTwo Heartsʼ and ʽYou Can Lookʼ, or between ʽThe Ties That Bind and ʽJackson Cageʼ?..
Nor does the «dark» stuff offer that much redemption. Lyrically, there's too much open manipulation — the title track, with its sad, but clichéd tale of innocence-lost, is a slightly over-arranged folk ballad which could have worked a little better in «stark naked» form (in two years' time, Bruce would realise the dignity of such an approach himself), but the way it is presented here, crumbles down very quickly under its own pathos. The same can be said about ʽPoint Blankʼ, which tries to melt our sympathetic hearts down merely on the strength of its lyrics and atmosphere, created at the intersection of Bittan's and Federici's soft, romantic jazzy playing — but no real hooks in sight. And why did ʽDrive All Nightʼ have to be eight minutes long? Why not eight hours then — so that the title could reflect reality? Particularly since there is nothing going on at this relaxed tempo, other than some basic dull atmospherics.
So much for the disgruntled moping. But then, once we have gotten that off our chests, let us also admit that in some ways, particularly in certain primal and straightforward ways, The River is... a lot of fun. Yes, these are clichéd, well-worn hooks, but... I can complain about ʽCadillac Ranchʼ all I want and write pages on how this stuff only pretends to be rock'n'roll and how it ain't got the truly authentic spirit, but do I deny the catchiness and the energy and the dedication of the E Street Band and its leader? Or even the rough sense of humor displayed in ʽYou Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)ʼ, where the protagonist is prevented by a stringent society from indulging in his friendly animal instincts, all set to another one of these neo-rockabilly melodies and enhanced with a garage-style lead guitar part? Or the efficiency of the basic hook of ʽHungry Heartʼ, with a Supertramp-ish keyboard melody and Beach Boy harmonies combined to render the idea of unfulfilled emotional yearning as simply as it gets?
Basically, I would not want anyone to think that I am scornful of The River's vibe in the same way that I would be dismissive of, say, Bon Jovi (who would take quite a few lessons from their New Jersey neighbor, but never to good effect). These here are safe, simple, über-accessible tunes that directly pander to the lowest common denominator, but what saves them from constituting an anti-musical / anti-intellectual criminal act is that they are written and performed in the spirit of youthful innocence. Although the instrumentation is already smelling a bit of the Eighties' technological boom, The River is anything but a New Wave album — its melodic and atmospheric carcass is almost completely construed from Eddie Cochran rockabilly, Ricky Nelson teen pop, Johnny Cash country folk, and Phil Spector grand pop elements from the late Fifties/early Sixties, and this surmises an atmosphere of total innocence and directness.
If there is a problem as such, it lies not with Bruce, but with the way this album has been treated in «mainstream» musical criticism — like some sort of sprawling, majestic, all-out-American panorama, with endless five-star ratings and continued admiration for how well the songs depict «the small victories and large compromises of ordinary joes and janies whose need to understand as well as celebrate is as restless as his own» (guess who). Relax, people! The more serious you get about The River, the less respect you have to pay to your own intellect. The best way to treat it is just to regard it as two hours of simple headbanging fun, with occasional patches of theatrical darkness thrown in for diversity's sake. Then at least you don't have to bother about «filler» — because there is really no filler here as such, everything is more or less on the same level of musicality and intensity.
So is this a thumbs up or what? Ultimately, yes. An unambitious Springsteen is not nearly as impressive as the successfully ambitious Springsteen of Darkness, but he still seems more agreeable here than the way-too-uncomfortably ambitious Springsteen of Born To Run. And as for the record being too long, I respectfully disagree. I do not at all see any «great single LP» hidden inside this «merely good double LP», and since most of the songs do not outlast their welcome and the general vibe is acceptable, it could have been a triple or quadruple one, for all I know (in fact, it really could have, considering how many outtakes from the Darkness sessions ended up here and how many more songs were written in 1979-80). And you can turn this opinion both ways — on one hand, the songwriting formulae of The River work so well that they would indeed be reused by The Boss on a regular basis for the next thirty-five years, on the other hand, it ensures that from now on, Bruce would forever remain in this «kinda okay artist with lotsa mass appeal» role, permanently locked out from more interesting or, dare I say it, experimental artistic inspirations. So, if you're one of these «looking for extra character development» types, The River might just be the last Springsteen album to look out for (well, you could also use Nebraska for a nice post-scriptum flourish, but that's about it).