Well, to help answer that question, along came the HBO documentary The Ties That Bind. In what is basically a 60-minute infomercial for the aforementioned box set, we sit down with Bruce as he discusses the making of The River. And, let me be clear, we are only talking to Bruce. There are no other interviewees - and any other voices heard in the documentary are quick or off-camera (like a bizarro-Springsteen & I). While this may sound like Bruce-overkill, it is fortunately padded with live performances to break up the interview sections (Bruce plays "Two Hearts", "The River", and "Independence Day", among others). It is also interesting to note that, at times, they subtitled Bruce while he was singing, which should elicit a chuckle from Bruce-diehards but was probably necessary to help the casual fan follow along.
However, despite my snark present in the last paragraph, the documentary did provide some fascinating insights into this period of Springsteen's life and career. Without giving away too much, the documentary explores the decision to make The River a double-album, the often clashing dynamic between Jon Landau and Steven Van Zandt, and the issue of Springsteen's live shows being a better experience than his record (a problem some critics may say he never solved). The most relatable part, to me, was Springsteen talking about entering his thirties, and trying to move from an observer in life into being a participant. While Darkness came from a period of isolation, he wanted The River to be a movement towards the mainstream. As a 31-year-old New Jersey boy myself, I can't help but vicariously project myself into Bruce's shoes in the recording studio.
Ultimately, the documentary helped show The River in a slightly new light. Many people may criticize it for being entirely about cars and girls, it shows Springsteen's maturity as an artist - he had the confidence needed to put out an extra-long album with a variety of genres on it. While the documentary may be hampered with a bit of padding and a lack of voices, I would recommend it to any fan just as confused as I was about this recent celebration of The River. I can't say that I still don't find the whole thing to be coming out of the blue, but I am enjoying the ride.
You can watch the documentary on HBOGO, or try this link while it lasts.