Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part V: The River (1980)

"But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse?"

By the time Bruce Springsteen reached his fifth LP, he wasn't the international icon he should have been, but he was a star with a good following and a handful of terrific records under his belt. He'd moved from the Dylan worship of his first two albums comfortably into a rock 'n' roll sound that was all his own, and he had the eclectic, electric talents of the E-Street Band behind him. What better time to attempt the double album, that mystical Holy Grail of rock music? Ever since the Beatles entered into the double album conversation with The White Album in 1968, it has undergone a colorful history that has seen works from everyone from Pink Floyd  to the Smashing Pumpkins, Led Zeppelin to the Foo Fighters,  from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to M83. To attempt the double album is to enter into an ambitious task that has proven, time and time again, nearly impossible to succeed in completely. Double albums overflow with songs, sounds and ideas; they allow artists to indulge in their quirks or in their adoration of genres outside of their comfort zone, and while they often result in some of the most creative and engaging material of ant artist's career, they also often come out gloriously flawed, with more throwaway filler material than should ever make it onto a full length album.

Bruce Springsteen came into The River with enough material for three or four albums (and b-sides from it make up at least a full disc of the Tracks collection). Like his predecessors, he stumbles into a few of the double album's inherent traps, but the resulting record is one of his most brilliantly compelling. The River, like many double albums, could be considered a blend of Springsteen at his loudest and his softest, his most raucous and his most introspective. Throughout the album's two discs, Springsteen presents a set of songs striking in their duality, one half bar-band rock 'n' roll, the other half among the darkest material he ever recorded. The opener, "The Ties That Bind," is a classic Springsteen rocker and perfectly encapsulates the record's louder sound. At first, the record was going to be a single-disc effort, and "Ties" was going to be the title track. That changed as some darker material began to emerge in Springsteen's writing, ultimately resulting in the stunning title track that closes the first disc. If "The Ties That Bind" captures Springsteen's more joyful side, "The River" finds him at his most inward, as he takes us on a journey through memories shrouded in shadow and regret. His portrait of young love in hard times captures an entire relationship in the course of five minutes, from the ecstatic euphoria of first love to the end of innocence, and the result is one of his best songs. Next to "Thunder Road," I don't think Springsteen's lyrics have ever hit me harder. His vocal is also a revelation, as he delivers his evocative lyrics with emotional honesty and intensity that is, quite frankly, chilling.

"The River" follows in the footsteps of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and like many of the songs on that album, it examines what happens after we wake up from the American Dream, after Thunder Road runs out and we realize that maybe we weren't born to run after all. It's heavy subject matter, and it permeates the best songs on The River, like the gorgeously sad "Independence Day," a song that Springsteen wrote about the day he finally moved out of his father's house. Springsteen and his dad never saw eye to eye, often fighting when they were young, but even despite this, his love for the man is palpable on "Independence Day," and the result is one of the most revealing songs he's ever written. It reminds me of one of the greatest recorded moments in the Springsteen collection: a live version of "The River" that was released on the Live: 1975-85 collection, along with choice cuts of many of Springsteen's most notable songs. This version is arguably better than the one on the album, full of all the sound and the fury that comes out when Springsteen cuts loose live, but the best part is what comes before the actual song. Amidst an elegiac rain of accompaniment from the E-Street Band, Springsteen tells a story about his father and the relationship they shared:

"I remember I got into a motorcycle accident once. I was laid up in bed and he had a barber come in and cut my hair, and man, I can remember tellin' him that I hated him and that I would never ever forget it. And he used to tell me: 'Man I can't wait 'til the Army gets you. When the Army gets you they're gonna make a man out of you. They're gonna cut all that hair off and they'll make a man out of you.'
And this was in, I guess, '68, and there were a lot of guys from the neighborhood going to Vietnam. I remember the drummer from my first band comin' over my to house with his Marine uniform on, sayin' that he was going, and that he didn't know where it was. 
And a lotta guys went and a lotta guys didn't come back. And a lot that came back weren't the same anymore. And I remember the day I got my draft notice. I hid it from my folks, and three days before my physical, me and my friends went out and we stayed up all night. And we got on the bus to go that, we were all so scared.
And I went and I failed. I came home. It's nothin' to applaud about...but I remember coming home, after I'd been gone for three days, and walking in the kitchen, and my mother and father were sittin' there.
My dad said, 'Where ya been!?'
I said, 'I went to take my physical.'
He said, 'What happened?'
I said, 'They didn't take me.'
And he said, 'That's good.'"

The first time that version really hit me, I was in the middle of a lonely drive home after a weekend of concerts, one of which was my first Springsteen live experience. It was late a night, barely a car on the road aside from my own, and I had nothing but my thoughts and my music to keep me company. I played that version of the song, and by the end of Springsteen's speech, I was in tears. I never heard "Independence Day" the same way again after that night, and it remains one of my favorite things Springsteen has ever done. With so many Springsteen songs, it feels like he's writing from the point of view of another: telling a story with complex characters, giving voice to the everyman: hell, it was his ability to write like that which earned him the nickname "the Boss" in the first place, but "Independence Day" is such a special song because it is completely personal and because it comes right from his heart. As the years go by and my relationship with my own father continues to dwindle, that song just hits me harder and harder.

Aside from those two landmark songs, the first disc of The River is actually fairly upbeat and fun. "Sherry Darling," which first originated during the Darkness sessions, is one of the catchiest songs Springsteen has written (he'd imitate the song's style a lot two and a half decades later on Magic). Disc One also contains numerous great bar band rave ups. Springsteen and co. sound like they're having an absolute ball on "Crush on You" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," and "Two Hearts" and "Out in the Street" are almost equally enjoyable. None of them are among Springsteen's best songs, nor can I say that they're more worth of being on the record than a few of the Tracks stand-outs ("Take 'Em As They Come," "Restless Nights," and "Be True," among others), but Springsteen has never sounded as spontaneous on record as he does here. Disc One also yields the pleasantly pretty slowdance of "I Wanna Marry You" and "Hungry Heart," a song with a radio ready chorus that earned Springsteen his first top ten hit.

I've often felt with double albums that the artist begins to lose steam somewhere during the second disc. Looking back at my favorite double albums, it's hard to find one where I legitimately prefer the second disc, but on disc two of The River, I think Springsteen laid down some of the finest songs of his career. The opener, "Point Blank," is one of the most haunting introductory tracks I've ever heard. A slow-burning masterclass in intensity, "Point Blank" epitomizes the kind of mournful regret that defines much of The River's second half, and it's only the beginning. It's the same sense of urgency that infects the narrator on "Fade Away," a simplistic break-up song that Springsteen injects with every ounce of heartache that comes with the end of a once brilliant relationship.

Gorgeously downbeat electric guitar chords and piano flourishes herald the arrival of "Stolen Car," and over the course of four minutes, the song has consumed me, time and time again. Perhaps more than anything Springsteen has ever recorded, "Stolen Car" is entrancing and hypnotic, and to this day, even after listening to it hundreds of times, it still breaks my heart. Over the course of those four minutes, we watch the love between two people evaporate and drift away. Springsteen doesn't have to say much: it's three verses and two choruses, but the song's atmosphere is so utterly, hopelessly heartbreaking that the song, which comes at the end of the record's third side, has always stopped the whole thing dead in its tracks. Amidst the song's mournful atmosphere, Springsteen delivers what might be the most perfect lines about falling out of love that I've ever heard:

"She asked if I remembered those letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old"

It's a simple verse, a mere four lines long, but in those four lines, Springsteen fits an entire relationship, from the first days, so full of excitement and spontaneity, to the falling in love, all the way to the present, where the narrator feels so broken and lost that those early days feel like a part of another life. Is he really driving a stolen car? Did he commit a crime to feel alive and spontaneous again? Is he really that far gone? Or is the car a metaphor for a life and a love that has gone so completely off course that he no longer knows how to find his way back. "Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do," Springsteen sings. With either interpretation, the line is drastic and powerful, and the song ultimately comes to the same meaning: this man is lost, and he needs someone else to wake him up again. Springsteen has never written a more shattering, hopeless song; I don't think any other songwriter has either.

The closing trio of songs (along with "Ramrod," another big bar rock song) make up one of the best sides to any record in the Springsteen catalog. "The Price You Pay" finds our protagonist (whoever he may be) in the same situations that have defined so much of the music on this album or on Darkness. The American Dream has faded, the age of innocence and youth has come to an end, and the characters of these songs have woken up to a world that is bleak and unforgiving, but much like Darkness's closing title track, "The Price You Pay" finds that character in a state of resignation and defiance. The song's gorgeous, often biblical lyricism, and simple, almost hymn-like musical structure build into an unexpected anthem, with Bruce's voice rising above the chaos until it reaches it's rousing peak in the song's final moments. "Drive All Night" is the song's spiritual sequel, and it is certainly no mistake that the songs are back to back, near the end of the record. That same defiance and redemption found in "The Price You Pay" continues to grow here, and Springsteen comes to an ultimate conclusion that has often left me wondering why "Drive All Night" isn't this record's finale. Despite the fact that his life has taken a different course than he envisioned in his dreams, the protagonist has, at very least, finally answered one of the key questions of life. On "Born to Run," Springsteen sang "I wanna know if love is real," and here, he comes to the realization that, not only is love real, but it has this massive power to heal and support. In the song's final verse, he sings:

"There's machines and there's fire waiting on the edge of town
They're out there for hire, but baby they can't hurt us now
Cause you've got my love
Through the wind, through the rain, the snow, the wind, the rain
You've got my love, heart, and soul."

Those lines are among my favorites that Springsteen has ever written. In the midst of this busy, disjointed record, full of boozy rock and roll and regret, there is this one grand moment of clarity. The protagonist knows there are always going to be hardships, but here, he's turning to face that darkness on the edge of town that's been dogging his steps for ages, and he's ready to fight. Love will be the thing to save him: what could be a more romantic ideal than that?

The River closes with "Wreck on the Highway," a moody, subdued post-script of a coda that does just what Springsteen has always been the best at in his songs: it tells a story. While driving home from work one night, the narrator comes upon the scene of a hit and run that has left a man half-dead on the side of the road. He calls the police, they take the man to the hospital, and then he continues home, but thoughts of the scene continue to haunt him. He lies awake at night, thinking about what he saw, imaging the death of the man and the reactions of the people that loved him, and he finally realizes the astounding brevity of life. Though The River seems to end in the same sadness and shadow that defines its best songs, I think there is a message of uplift here as well. The narrator realizes how our time here on Earth can be cut short in a split second's time, and though he doesn't say as much, I've always heard a resolve in his voice to try harder: to live more fully, to love more completely, to work harder and cherish the world around him and the people in it. For a record about characters getting over their regrets and failed dreams, there could be no more appropriate ending.

Over the course of The River's 20 songs, Bruce Springsteen covers a lot of subjects and sounds, from elegiac ballads to honky-tonk rock and rollers, from songs about family and love, both lost and re-affirmed, to fun ditties about fast cars and girls.  It feels disjointed, uneven, sometimes even completely directionless, but I'd argue that that's part of the point. The River, above all else, has always felt to me like a journey through adulthood: where Born to Run epitomized the endless opportunism of youth and Darkness captured the post-innocence shock of discovering a much crueler world, The River finds its characters settling into that world, learning to survive, love and (dare I say) thrive in it. Many have problems with the flow or the album's personality crisis, but life isn't consistent or easy or obvious: it's messy. Human existence is the messiest thing of all, and this record mirrors that. As a result, The River is a long, challenging record, and it actually took me quite a long time to recognize how truly spectacular it is. There have always been other songs I wish had made the cut, and it's length and tonal inconsistency has kept it from getting the kind of play Born to Run has over the years, but when I do put the record on, it still completely absorbs me. All double albums are flawed, but Springsteen made one of the greatest ones here, and I would argue that, aside from the untouchable Born to Run, he hasn't made another record nearly as compelling, memorable, or indeed, as great as The River.

***Lots of exciting news in Springsteen world in the past week, what with new album information and tour date announcements. Needless to say, I'll be offering my thoughts on the album as soon as it is in my hands, and I'll also be at the Concert at the Palace in April. Counting the days!***

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