Today marks the 35th anniversary of The River. Sure, 35 years isn't quite the iconic number you want to celebrate (unlike, say, 30 years or 40 years). However, it seemed as good a time as any to take a dive into this massive double album.
The River is a unique specimen in Springsteen lore. It was Springsteen's first and only double-album release, which, in itself, was a curious decision. Furthermore, it produced his first top ten single, "Hungry Heart", which strangely enough was sped up to make it sound less like Springsteen was singing it. The songs range the entire emotional spectrum: one minute, you are listening to a heart-wrenching tale of the working poor, the next, you are in the barroom listening to drunken catcalls like "Ooh ooh, I got a crush on you!" There's a lot to digest, which is why you'll hear many Springsteen fans profess to love the album, but very few claiming that it is their all-time favorite.
This epic journey begins with a declaration that "You've been hurt and you're all cried out." It's an important mission statement for the album, as the music acknowledges you have experienced pain, and you are looking for consolation ("Two Hearts" is a good companion piece to "The Ties That Bind", as it has many similar themes and lyrics). With The River, the "all over" nature of the songs may be about the process of getting through pain - either through somber reflection ("The River"), humor ("Sherry Darling"), self-affirmation ("I'm a Rocker"), or pure dedication to love ("Drive All Night").
Another theme in The River is that of escape. Throughout the songs, people have "packed their bags", "went out walking", "gone out for rides and never went back", stolen cars, etc. However, these characters don't find redemption, as they either end up in the same place, or find a whole new set of problems awaiting them. They are no longer pulling out of here to win - they are pulling out of here because there's nothing better to do.
That being said, let's look at the music. Upon going to this review, I wasn't sure how these songs were ordered - I'm a product of the iPod shuffle generation. However, listening to it in order, you won't find many better albums than the first album of The River. You have the aforementioned "The Ties That Bind" leading the record off, a couple of just pure classic rock songs ("Jackson Cage", "Out In The Street"), and a few songs that show Springsteen's lighter side ("Sherry Darling", "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)". It also contains the sped-up "Hungry Heart" - which, while many fans dismiss in preference of the live version (raises hand), can't be overlooked in its significance, as it helped bring Bruce's popularity to a new level. The album ends with "The River", one of Springsteen's all-time classic songs (ranking number 8 in a recent fan poll, the highest of any song on the album). In Bruce's tradition, he ends the album with an emotional gut-punch, as seen before with Born To Run/"Jungleland" and Darkness On The Edge of Town/title track. From start to finish, The River part one is among the strongest work Springsteen has done.
However, The River part two is much murkier. Missing are the many of the classic rock hits, as we receive many slow ballads ("Fade Away", "Drive All Night") followed by goofy songs with cocky narrators ("Ramrod", "I'm a Rocker"). While many are enjoyable on their own, it makes for very jarring listening experience, as you can go from getting shot between the eyes to cruising in a Cadillac. "The Price You Pay" is my personal favorite from this side - while many songs on this side are either dark or light, this achieves a nice balance. "The Price You Pay" is slow, but not plodding, and the lyrics are emotional, but not maudlin. And, while I'll always prefer the Tracks version of "Stolen Car", the experimental nature of The River's version of the song has grown on me, and I appreciate Springsteen taking a chance with his music on a major release on this, rather than just going with safe piano ballad.
Overall, I'd give the first half of The River 5/5 stars, while the second half earns a 3/5. Call it a 4/5 for the whole album, if you must. So, if you have an hour and a half to kill today, I'd recommend giving this album another spin. While it may be a little over the place musically, thematically it's one of Springsteen's strongest, and you may find a song that will connect to whatever problems that have been a part of your life.