Maybe it’s the lack of a great backstory that makes Bruce Springsteen’s fifth album, The River — released 35 years ago today, on Oct. 17, 1980 — such an overlooked and underappreciated set of songs.
Unlike Bruce’s previous high points — 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (striving nu-Dylan makes hyper-wordy debut), 1975’s Born to Run (underperforming contender makes last-chance power drive), and 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town (pissed-off victim of showbiz malfeasance makes angriest LP yet) — The River isn’t a turning-point record or a souvenir of some easily recognizable career crossroads.
It might also be the wealth of material that causes The River to be overlooked. Clocking in at 83 minutes and spread over 20 tracks, it’s a lot to take — even from an emerging rock ‘n’ roll icon at the peak of his songwriting powers. It doesn’t help that most of the best tunes are frontloaded onto sides one and two, with the latter half of the double-LP set waning slightly and containing the only two or three tracks that might be considered disposable.
While The River would’ve been more consistent as The Ties That Bind, the single-disc album Springsteen originally envisioned, the sprawling final product is something more: a summation of everywhere the Boss had been and an indication he wasn’t content to spin his wheels.
While the music is still heavy on honking sax and plinking piano — those ‘50s and early-‘60s hallmarks Springsteen had been playing with since his earliest days — The River also suggests Bruce had been rocking out to new-school U.K. acts like the Clash, Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker, whose album The Up Elevator he’d played on earlier in the year. Also: NYC punks the Ramones, for whom he wrote “Hungry Heart,” a tune he fortuitously kept for himself, as it earned him his first Top 10 pop hit.
Indeed, The River is Springsteen’s New Wave album, but it’s also his pop album (it was his first Billboard 200 chart-topper) and the beginning of his forays into the harrowing acoustic balladry he’d explore with his 1982 follow-up, Nebraska. The sheer expanse of The River gives Bruce ample room to be goofy, sentimental, hopeful, and despondent in equal measure. He always meant for his music to fuel dance parties and inspire spiritual epiphanies, and here, he casts darkness and light in stark relief.
As Springsteen told biographer Robert Hilburn, he “finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you’ve got to live with them.”
Read on for our track-by-track take on this, a mostly filler-free double LP that’ll make you laugh, cry, hug your wife and kids, and curse your mother-in-law while cracking a brew.
“The Ties That Bind”: An up-tempo jingle-jangler with a cool Clarence solo, the disc’s opener is a rebuke to lone wolves who’ve been hurt too many times to trust again. Springsteen feels their pain, but he also knows that one and one is more than two.
“Sherry Darling”: The whooping party noises on this throwback frat-rock stomper provide a funny contrast with the lyrics, all about a guy stuck driving his girl’s pain-in-the-ass mother to the unemployment agency. Springsteen based the tune on ‘60s classics like the Swingin’ Medallions’ “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” and he nails the vibe while injecting just enough sociopolitical angst to make it his own.
“Jackson Cage”: Springsteen goes New Wave with a brisk organ-laced tune about a woman living a life of quiet desperation. “Will you just do your time and fade away?” Bruce asks. Unlike his characters from “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run,” this guy doesn’t necessarily know the way out.
“Two Hearts”: Essentially a continuation of “The Ties That Bind,” this punky live favorite centers on the search not just for a lover, but for someone to help “whip this world” into a place worth living. It’s a job for two, regardless of what those big-screen cowboys and gangsters tell you.
“Independence Day”: No surprise Springsteen wrote this in 1977, around the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It includes the line “There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us, too,” but more importantly, it’s a concise drama about a father and son too different to live together and too similar to believe a truce is possible. Over sober piano and acoustic guitar, Springsteen is plenty sad yet 100 percent certain about his decision to leave home.
“Hungry Heart”: The Ramones would’ve had a blast with this one, even if they hadn’t included the burping baritone sax and rinky-dink organ Springsteen fits into his version. Another one of Springsteen’s secretly dark pop jams, “Hungry Heart” is about a restless serial monogamist whose itchy feet have a tendency to trample others down. Still, you like this guy.
“Out in the Street”: A Springsteenian rewrite of “Friday on My Mind,” the 1966 psychedelic proto-punk nugget by Australian one-hit wonders the Easybeats, this chipper New Wave rocker is all about living solely for the weekend and somehow maintaining your dignity in the process.
“Crush on You”: Quite obviously inspired by “1-2 Crush on You,” a rare love song from British punks the Clash, this Stonesy 3:11 romp is a chance for Springsteen to affect his most overheated tough-guy lover-man voice and try out some silly lyrics that wouldn’t fit into his more serious songs.
“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”: A neo-rockabilly rave-up with, yep, another deceptively smart and insightful lyric — this time about a guy frustrated with sex and commerce — “You Can Look” packs a whole lot of humor, desire, and disappointment into 2:37.
“I Wanna Marry You”: On this ’60s-style pop ballad, Bruce deftly blends romanticism and pragmatism, admitting that love and marriage are more about two people “facing up to their responsibilities” than living happily ever after. Even if Bruce doesn’t believe love is wild, he knows it’s real. He’s certainly not imagining anything like the desperation he explores on the next track.
“The River”: Famously based on Springsteen’s sister and her husband, the album’s title track is a whole mess of story in five minutes. Stark and chilly, with harmonica cutting through acoustic guitar like a nasty winter wind, “The River” is about two people scraping through the blue-collar lives they were predestined to live. This depressed valley Springsteen describes is about a thousand miles from the small town of “Thunder Road,” where losers still harbor dreams of winning.
“Point Blank”: The album’s second half kicks off with a noirish variation on the title track. Again, Bruce is singing about being born into a real bear trap of a life, and again, he’s poking holes in fairytale notions of love. “These days, you don’t wait on Romeos,” he tells a girl he danced with in more carefree times, “you wait on that welfare check.”
“Cadillac Ranch”: Located in Amarillo, Texas, the titular ranch is a real-life roadside attraction filled with brightly painted Caddies buried in the sand. It’s a place cool cars go when they die, and on this formulaic ‘50s throwback, Springsteen imagines it to be his own private heaven. Although he makes clear in the final verse that he’s not ready to be planted in the sand just yet.
“I’m a Rocker”: Another carefree tune in the “Crush on You”/”Cadillac Ranch” mold, this rockabilly-flavored pop culture reference-fest finds the Boss comparing himself to Batman, James Bond, and Kojack, none of whom can rescue a kidnapped heart like he can.
“Fade Away”: Musically, Danny Federici’s organ solo is the highlight of this pretty-yet-nondescript retro ballad. Lyrically, there’s subtle power in the way Springsteen rolls the ultimate working-stiff fear, being forgotten, into yet another song about a failed relationship.
“Stolen Car”: Like the characters in “Fade Away,” “The River,” and “Point Blank,” the guy in this ghostly ballad is haunted by happy memories of a romance that ran its course. Unlike those dudes, he’s a criminal — one who’s not even enough of an entity in this cruel, cruel world to get picked up by the cops.
“Ramrod”: Similar in sound and subject matter to the better-known non-album single “Pink Cadillac,” this would’ve made a great closer to a four-song EP also including “Crush on You,” “Cadillac Ranch,” and “I’m a Rocker.” Here, it’s the best kind of filler: a blatant, successful stab at the kind of archetypal American rock song it’s easier to over- or undercook than to get this right.
“The Price You Pay”: With musical and lyrical references to the Darkness on the Edge of Town favorite “The Promised Land,” not to mention the biblical story of Moses, this uncharacteristically vague deep cut does little but mark a mood shift after the exuberance of “Ramrod.” We’ve gone from hot-rodding to off-roading through hostile desert.
“Drive All Night”: A worked-up Bruce wrestles the melody to a draw but winds up with a late-album winner thanks to the twinkling piano, the sweet hum of the organ, and Big Man’s quiet storm of a sax solo.
“Wreck on the Highway”: If The River was Springsteen’s attempt to make some grand statement about life, his choice of closer is telling. It suggests the duality of the preceding 19 songs — all the comic joy mixed in with the crushing moments of everyday sadness — symbolizes the randomness of the world. Inspired by an old country tune with the same title, “Wreck on the Highway” is about a guy who comes upon the aftermath of a deadly car crash and can’t wrap his head around why such things happen. The tacked-on 40-second instrumental coda is fitting: This is a guy who just can’t let go.