The River

from feature "The Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years"

(from Australian Rolling Stone October 1987 - issue 411)


On The River, his only double album, Bruce Springsteen attempted to stave off the isolating grimness so powerfully rendered on his previous LP, Darkness on the Edge of Town, by reasserting the values of committed relationships and rock & roll celebration. That he only half succeeded makes The River a compellingly fragmented, nervously unbalanced statement. In the fissures that open between the album's frat-rock raveups, declarations of the ties that bind and restless bolts into lonely freedom, fascinating revelations emerge about Bruce Springsteen's divided soul.

"I did the Darkness on the Edge of Town thing, and with The River thing I allowed some light to come in, part of the time," Springsteen says in the recently published book Glory Days. "I had to - had to. In a funny way, I felt that I didn't have the center, so what I had to do was I had to get left and right, in hope that it would create some sort of center - or some sense of center." Bruce Springsteen had released only one album since Born to Run in 1975. His extensive touring had ended in late 1978. As a result the album had all the earmarks of a major event, and when "Hungry Heart" became a top ten single, Springsteen achieved mass success for the first time.

In American culture the river is an image that extends at least back to Mark Twain's mighty Mississippi, and it's one of the world's oldest metaphors for the all-encompassing flow of life itself. Springsteen required a concept of that scale and significance to contain all the contradictory currents of The River. While "I Wanna Marry You" is a touchingly modest proposal of marriage as a comforting hedge against the world's uncertainties, "Stolen Car" suggests that "something" in life finally makes connection impossible. Rockers like "Sherry Darling" and "Cadillac Ranch" offer girls, cars, music, fun as a rather manic solace until the larger philosophical issues can be resolved.

"People want to be part of a group yet they also want to disassociate themselves", Springsteen says of The River in Glory Days. "People go through those conflicts every day in little ways...I wanted to get part of that on the record - the need for community, which is what "Out in the Street" is about. Songs like "The Ties That Bind" and "Two Hearts" deal with that, too. But there's also the other side, the need to be alone." Springsteen would explore "the need to be alone" to an almost frightening degree on his next album, Nebraska. Born in the USA would champion the "need for community". Both records find their sources in the fertile dichotomies of The River.

Highest chart position: #1
Top Forty Singles: "Hungry Heart" (#5), "Fade Away" (#20)
Total U.S. Sales: 1.5 million

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