The latest step on my ongoing journey through Bruce Springsteen's big ol' back catalogue was The River, Bruce's blockbusting double album from 1980.
(Actually, the latest step was also Magic, which I bought on the same day as The River. But, as much as I've been enjoying You'll Be Comin' Down and Livin' in the Future and Girls in Their Summin' Clothes, I don't have anything especially interesting to say about Magic, so I won't be mentioning it again after the close bracket.)
With 20 songs spread across two incredibly varied discs, The River is a real boon to the fledgling Boss fan. If you want bombastic classics in the Born to Run vein, you'll love Two Hearts; if you want quiet, Nebraskan smoulder, vive la Stolen Car. And hey, if you just wanna cut loose, try You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) on for size. There's something for everyone at this party!
But did you know that The River started life as a one-disc album called The Ties That Bind (more information here)? If that title sounds familiar, it's because it's the name of The River's opening track:
But while The Ties That Bind was robbed of its title track status at the eleventh hour, it still works pretty well as a summary of what The River is all about. It's all about...well, the ties that bind. Very often, those ties take the form of marriage (I haven't counted how often marriage is mentioned on The River, but it's certainly a fair few), but more broadly, the album's working title refers to anything that holds you down and keeps you behind. Some examples:
- Your job (Out in the Street: "I work five days a week, girl, loading crates down on the dock")
- Fear of getting caught (Stolen Car; ironically, this song's narrator broke free of his previous binds - a loveless relationship - but he is now unable to enjoy his freedom because he is constantly worried about the law catching up with him)
- Society's various rules and regulations (You Can Look, in which Bruce is frustrated because he is constantly being told that he had "better not touch")
- Responsibilities towards one's partner and child (The River - the guy in this song is condemned to a life of blue-collar work when he accidentally gets his girlfriend Mary pregnant)
- The constant craving to keep moving and see the world (Hungry Heart. This is a particularly interesting example because, unlike Mary and her unborn child, the "wife and kids" of Hungry Heart are not the 'ties that bind' but the things from which the protagonist is bound. The true 'tie' in this song is the hungry heart itself, which led him to abandon his family and move on.)
Note that the ties that bind are not always unpleasant: in Two Hearts, Springsteen notes that "two hearts are better than one", and in the rather blunt I Wanna Marry You, he more or less begs to be entered into the bonds that the protagonists of Stolen Car and Hungry Heart were so keen to escape.
Personally, I think Springsteen should have stuck with The Ties That Bind as this album's title. I can see why he eventually decided on 'The River' - that dried-up river is symbolic of everything we miss out on when bound by jobs and marriage and whatever - but The Ties That Bind sounds more like the name of a big, sprawling concept album, which is exactly what this is.