The River

Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records, 1980

REVIEW BY: Gordon T. Gekko


With 1984's Born In The USA, some critics camed that Bruce Springsteen had sold out to pop sensibilities, and his lyrics were becoming sentemental. These critics were wrong, however, because these thing actually happened four years earlier on The River.

The Boss has gone through different stages: street poet, folkie, adult contemporary, and finally icon. But the Springsteen most people think of is the leather-clad rocker of the mid '70s, when his best albums were produced ( The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle and Born To Run). Most people don't think "Bruce Springsteen = Hopeless Romantic." That is where The River diverges from the atypical Bruce album. Every song here is a love song of sorts, and the album has a haunting quailty. He made other albums that were just as dark, such as Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, but these were primarily stories about other people in hopeless situations. The angst-ridden protagonist in each of the 20 songs on this double album is Springsteen himself. This may sound like the album is self-serving and full of drunken lamenting. 1.) It is. 2.) That's what makes it so great.

Let's get the hits out of the way. "Hungry Heart" was his first hit to crack the top ten, and perhaps that's because it doesn't even sound like Springsteen. His scratchy, slightly off-key vocals are completely gone on this song. I don't know what he was drinking that night, but he sounds eerily smooth and radio-ready. It's not a bad song, but it's also not a high point on the album. The title track is probably the most famous song here. It is a classic song, and remains prelevalent on AOR stations across the country. The version on his triple-CD live album is better, but this version is still great. The haunting percussion always seems to find just the right tome, and he's wise enough not to play too fast.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The best song on the album, however, doesn't come until near the end of the second disc. "Drive All Night," a nearly nine-minute ballad of repentance, and the emptiness that comes from the "prison" in our hearts. This song is comparable to his best love epics (i.e. the entire second side of The Wild, The Innocent, The E-Street Shuffle).

Of course there were other contributing forces to the album. He had just lost his father, and Was beginning to question the E Street Band's appropriateness to the different kinds of music he wanted to make. Speaking of the band, he's wise enough to keep them low-key enough so that the words mean as much as the music, This would have made Born In The USA a better album, but maybe he was just trying to sell records by then. In fact, the only real solo on the album is a beautiful, smoking sax working by Clarence Clemons, the most notable member of the band.

The amazing thing about the album, and perhaps the only thing that keeps it from making you cry everytime it's played is the way the pop hooks undercut the lyrical interpretations. This, in and of itself, is a stroke of production genuis, and makes the album worth buying alone. A more satisying paradox in music has rarely been achieved. And then there are the songs.

All of the pop throw-aways clock in at under four minutes, and all of them are fitfully entertaining. From the mother-in-law kiss-off, "Sherry Darling," to the "here's another slice of pop culture pie" rocker, "Cadillac Ranch," these songs are instantaneously recognizable in their situation, and many are also very funny. But you won't laugh, because you know that just around the next corner is another grey monster. The way the pop songs and the dark stuff alternate make the album all the better on repeat listens.

I generally listen to music that fits my mood. If I'm depressed, I either put on some more upbeat riffs, or some really depressing music if I feel like wallowing. When I'm happy, I usually listen to more challenging, progressive albums, or maybe a touch of country. The River, however, acts as an emotional catharsis, regardless of my mood. If I use it sparingly, it always restores my equilibrium. I'm not promising that will do the same for you, but it's worth purchasing either way. It's not the greatest Springsteen album, but it is the last truly great one.

Rating: A-

User Rating: B+


© 1998 Gordon T. Gekko and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.