With major musicians who have enjoyed long careers, success is almost invariably founded on a run of great records. There will usually be a few formative pieces that precede it – in hindsight, a kind of artistic throat-clearing. (I can think of only Public Enemy, Joy Division and Pet Shop Boys to whom this doesn’t apply.) Afterwards, “mature” works may pile up and eventually outnumber the classics, but these are usually dispensable. For David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Prince and Stevie Wonder, the core of their oeuvre remains the music they produced in their prime, when everything significant they had to say came out in an unrepeatable burst of creative fire. Their most famous work is also their most representative.
Bruce Springsteen is different. “Born in the USA”, from 1984, remains the most emblematically Springsteenish album he ever produced. In this, it does him a disservice. It is anthemic, but its anthems are strained, urgent and histrionic – the kind of songs people mock, if affectionately, when they yell “Brooooooce!” If I were to choose just one album to represent all that is best about Springsteen, it wouldn’t be that one. Nor would it be his second-most-famous opus, “Born To Run” (1975). It would be the double album that fell between those two more successful records in 1980, and which will be reissued on December 4th: “The River”.
Everything that is outstanding about those other records is found on “The River”. Everything that they lack, “The River” encompasses. It’s a Springsteen best-of – not in a Greatest Hits sense, but in spirit. It’s the album I’d suggest to any Springsteen neophyte interested in grasping what everybody else hears in him: if they don’t like that one, chances are they won’t like much else.
This is partly down to its variety, and partly down to its quality. “Born To Run” was the culmination of Springsteen’s early incarnation as a romantic street poet in thrall to the verbal acrobatics of Dylan – who had long since moved on to a plainer style, as Springsteen did on later albums such as the deeply bleak “Nebraska” (1982). “The River” came in between, a 20-song set which runs from light to dark, brash to hushed, comic to tragic, with the range of a Victorian melodrama but scant sentimentality or overt contrivance.
The album has anthems aplenty. They include “Hungry Heart”, as straight a pop tune as Springsteen ever made, and one which, like so many of his best songs, fuses tales of life’s hard realities with appealing spareness. On such tracks as “Jackson Cage”, Springsteen deals with one of his great themes: how working-class life can trap and grind down those born into it. It’s an idea that recurs on slower and more plainly melancholy songs like “Point Blank”, “Independence Day” and “The Price You Pay”, which combine it with artfully realised personal narratives. The album’s magnificent title track melds the personal and the political to devastating effect.
“The River” is also stuffed with thumping, good-time bar-band tunes like “I’m a Rocker”, “Cadillac Ranch”, “Out In the Street” and “Ramrod”. They might, on first listen, lend weight to the sniffy Springsteen critique found on Prefab Sprout’s song “Cars and Girls”. Yet these are never just stomp-alongs: each has the persuasive ring of a particular blue-collar voice about it, and often, as on “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”, deceptively sharp psychological insight. Springsteen, among the most misunderstood artists outside his own fanbase, was on astonishing form as a writer on “The River”, and it’s all there for anyone who cares to listen closely.
“The River” closes with the heartbreaking simplicity of “Wreck on the Highway”, which foreshadows “Nebraska” in its use of the pop song as a form of short story. On its own it refutes the charge that Springsteen shuns subjects which, as Prefab Sprout put it, “hurt more, much more than cars and girls”. For the Springsteen of “The River”, the cars and girls are emblems of lives both profoundly damaged yet richly capable of joy, and he has never treated the subject in a more affecting way.
The Ties That Bind: The River Collection Columbia Records, December 4th