The character in a Bruce Springsteen song – a working class hero trying to make it by – is just as important to the story as the Boss, and is often the Boss.
With his fifth album The River, Springsteen reaches a level of storytelling stardom by going outside his small town shell, while still embodying that lowly and earnest character to the fullest.
The River was released in 1980, two years after the greasy grit of Darkness on the Edge of Town and four years out from spangled pop splash Born in U.S.A. At this point, audiences were comfortable with Springsteen– his love for Jersey, the everyday American plight, all that good stuff.
And he definitely had the look, either with bushy beard and beanie from the Born to Run era, or with slicked back locks like Elvis.
Springsteen had made his admiration for the King known up until that point with his sex crazed stage presence, but he marries the lovey-dovey and the loud on The River in a way that lets him take his own throne.
You want ’50s diner dash numbers? You got em.
Tender love songs more soul crushing than “Love Me Tender?” Of course.
Small town heartbreaks in cinematic sound? Yep.
And all this on a double album, no less.
The double album format can easily teeter on the edge of self-obsession. But Springsteen gives material that’s more than worthy, and weaves a story with ups and downs to create a thread of interest.
The potency of love and loss comes up in gasps in-between the records, with gas still in the tank by the time you get to the second, third and fourth sides. This lets a song like “Fade Away” shine in all its brutality, and leave enough energy around by the time you get to “I’m a Rocker.”
The potency from his previous album Darkness on the Edge of Town lingers in the lucky predicament of leftovers, starting with album opener “The Ties That Bind.” It has the soaring approach of “Thunder Road” with a more call-to-arms feel.
Springsteen also sings about love in a more direct way on this record, most popularly on “Hungry Heart.” Originally written for The Ramones, you can hear the straight forward punk attitude that would have made the New York misfits look like premiere Casanovas.
“Crush on You” and “I Wanna Marry You” follow a similar formula with one of Springsteen’s most infectious and straight up rock choruses from the former in the vein of The Clash.
There’s a looseness to The River in these upbeat moments that allows the E Street Band to sound like they’re just tearing it up back at the bar. Perhaps it is that ’50s, ’60s rockabilly inspiration that brings that out, but it’s likely just the essence of the E Street Band themselves, who can truly do no wrong.
Beyond that bar brawl intensity, there’s plenty of room left for the heavy stuff.
When singing of a working woman’s struggles to break free from the confines of her town, he hits a nerve:
Into a row of houses she just melts away
Like the scenery in another man’s play
Into a house where the blinds are closed
To keep from seeing things she don’t want to know – Jackson Cage
You could argue (and I would) that “Jackson Cage” is one of the definitive songs about being stuck and actually suffocated by your environment. The character in the song has no way of escaping and has fashioned herself a prison in fateful, and convenient, advance.
On the flip side of that socially and personally claustrophobic alienation, Springsteen looks toward his own liberation.
“Independence Day” wrestles with Springsteen’s relationship to his father and how the hardness of his father’s life has created a divide beyond the walls of their home.
But they can’t touch me now
And you can’t touch you now
They ain’t gonna do to me
What I watched them do to you
The town may have drained his father’s life, but Springsteen was able to escape with the pain preserved in songs instead of paying the actual price.
Others, like his father, lived off promises before sinking into the trap. Springsteen pulls no punches when singing of a former lover’s fall from grace on “Point Blank,” saying: “You don’t wait on Romeo’s, you wait on that welfare check.”
The definitive song of The River has got to be the title track.
It’s about a failed relationship, sure, but it’s also the haunting realization that life is beyond fairy-tales and happy endings when you’re a teenager.
Springsteen sings one of his most memorable lines on “The River” that stings even more with age.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
Well, Springsteen’s dream came true, and with it his first number one album. The River was a critical and commercial success in part for it’s ability to unite on all fronts. It continues to offer something new upon each album revisit.
Springsteen toured The River again in 2016, his first nostalgic indulgence of his own work. It was a rare and surprising move on the Boss’s part, but it makes sense for that to be the album.
Because it continues to resonate and bind us even when we can’t figure out how to do it on our own.