I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of The River, I'd have to say it's the album from Springsteen's catalog that I am least likely to reach for when a "Springsteen Mood" strikes me. I'd probably say the biggest reason for that is length. This was a double album set, and there are points, for me, when it kinda feels like it's droning on.
Which is a really odd reaction, seeing as how this album contains some of Bruce's most pop songwriting. Including "Hungry Heart," which ended up being Springsteen's first Bilboard Top Ten hit. (#5)
(I'm also learning via the writing of these little essays, as I see the vocals on "Hungry Heart" are sped up, to produce a slightly higher pitch [as Dylan did on "Lay, Lady, Lay]...which explains why I feel comfortably in tune when I sing along at shows, but horribly flat when I attempt it at Karaoke.)
The album is kind of a bastard creation, with many of the tracks being leftovers from that incredibly long Darkness on the Edge of Town recording process, as well as from Born to Run. It's interesting to think that "Drive All Night" started as an interlude in the middle of "Backstreets." Which would've been a crime, as "Drive All Night" is a truly magnificent number.
I think this "bits and pieces" creation is part of why the album tends to wear on me while listening. It's a bit of a Frankenstein monster of a record, and sometimes I feel the pieces, no matter how good they may be on their own, don't quite fit together. The album stated out as a single disk titled The Ties That Bind, with the following track order;
1- The Ties That Bind
3- Hungry Heart
4- Stolen Car
5- Be True
6- The River
7- You Can Look (But Don't Touch)
8- The Price You Pay
9- I Wanna Marry You
10- Loose Ends
Springsteen rejected this version as "too pop." Which is accurate, to an extent. (The only track here I haven't heard is "Cindy.") This version would be a much more straight-ahead, and unified, album.
Again, it's not like there are awful tracks here, there aren't, in fact, many of them are downright brilliant. It's just that sometimes it feels like four sides of schizophrenic mood swings. Going from "Ramrod" to "Drive All Night" with only "The Price You Pay" to ease the transition is a large leap.
Aside from all that, one of the important things to consider here is the evolution of Springsteen's ability to match music with incongruous lyrics. It's a technique that would come to it's fullest use with Born in the USA, but it starts here. "Hungry Heart" being the obvious example. A very upbeat, pop number, with lyrics about a guy abandoning his family;
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, JackOr, the shambling 50's-esque rave up of "Sherry Darling," which reveals itself as a long complaint about a girlfriend's mother;
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going
Your Mamma's yappin' in the back seatThis dichotomy is really reflective of the entire album. It has some of Springsteens most pop creations, but then also very, very dark tracks, like "Independence Day," or the title track. It's disconcerting, in a good way to have side 2 end with the joyous hope of "I Wanna Marry You," and side 3 begin with the absolute marital dissolution of "The River."
Tell her to push over and move them big feet
Every Monday morning I gotta drive her down to the unemployment agency
Well this morning I ain't fighting tell her I give up
Tell her she wins if she'll just shut up
But it's the last time that she's gonna be ridin' with me
So, while I say that the odd mood swings make it difficult for me to listen to the album as a whole, they also provide some of the most powerful moments. I've never said I was easy to figure out, folks.
The album is, again, produced by Springsteen, Jon Landau and Little Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt has repeatedly made clear that this is his favorite of Springsteen's discography, embracing as it does the early-rock and roll, 50's feel he loves so much on many of it's tracks. He also has said there are (again) many, many outtakes and full albums worth of material he feels are just as good as what's on the disk itself.
I guess I'll start saving for that uber-deluxe reissue of The River in a few years... :)