In recent months, Bruce Springsteen has spoken more about what he was thinking when writing The River – objectively his most expansive and longest album; subjectively my favorite album of his, which is REALLY saying something – than he has at any other point in his career. For its 35th anniversary in 2015, Bruce Inc. released a rather marvelous box set that includes:
- A re-mastered version of the album
- The original single record titled The Ties That Bind that Bruce initially turned in to the studio then promptly took back in favor of broadening its scope into a double record
- A collection of outtakes that Bruce and the E Street Band recorded and contemplated including on the album before deciding against doing so
- An almost complete video recording of their concert from Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ near the beginning of the original River Tour on November 5, 1980
- Random rehearsal footage
- A long booklet containing various information on the album and its release
- A Thom Zimny documentary filmed in 2015 that’s basically one long interview with Bruce about his recollections of making the album (mixed in with priceless archival footage).
Bruce delves into similar yet slightly different recollections at each show on his and the E Street Band’s current tour – oh so creatively dubbed The River Tour 2016 – during which they play the entire album, in sequence, from beginning to end, every single night.
I only mention all of these details to say that a) you should buy the aforementioned box set, b) you should really see at least one show on this tour, even if you’re not a Springsteen fan for whatever inane reason, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve never seen him live before – barring a miracle in the field of medicine, chances are you don’t have many chances left to do so, and c) I’ve consumed myself in all things River for the past few months. In addition to combing through the box set multiple times to make sure that I’ve gleaned every shred of information contained within, I’ve also attended a majority of the concerts on this tour. Needless to say, I’ve gone down to The River more times in recent months than anyone on Planet Earth not being paid by Bruce Inc.
I don’t know if you’ve ever repeatedly watched a movie or television episode or read a book or listened to a piece of music over and over and over again in a very condensed amount of time, but such intense concentration on one work of art tends to reveal new layers that you had never either detected or understood before. And that’s exactly what’s been happening to me by listening to every song on The River – usually in the order that they were originally meant to be listened – a countless number of times recently. Instead of being pissy about the fact that I
have get to hear one of the greatest albums ever recorded performed by one of the greatest bands ever to play together every night of this tour, I’ve taken the opportunity to really listen to these songs and try to understand them in deeper, more meaningful ways.
In hopes of allowing you to listen to these same old songs with new ears – in addition to perhaps opening the eyes of those non-Bruce fans who have either never listened to these songs before OR wrote them off after only one listen – I have decided to share my discoveries with you.
And thus, welcome to the first of what I hope will become many series here on Write All Nite. I’ve decided to call this one ‘Ranking The River.’ Though ‘ranking’ is very evidently in the title, the main goal of the series will not be simply to rank all of the songs on the album in order of quality. Though I will be doing that, I will spend far more time dissecting each song, one by one, in the order that they appear on the album.
In recent years, it’s become a nauseating trend in journalism to replace thoughtful analysis with simple lists that rank the “journalist’s” opinion on the subject that they’re exploring. For instance, when Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ was released in February, far too many supposed quality outlets published lists ranking the Coen Brothers’ best movies. Though undoubtedly a worthwhile task given its difficulty, such lists merely contained one paragraph “reviews” of each of their movies explaining why the writer felt it should be ranked where it was.
It’s fun to debate the contested merits of pieces of art – especially when brilliant artists like the Coen Brothers and Bruce have such strong bodies of work – but who the hell cares about how some random writer ranks these works in 2016? Especially given the state of journalism today, their lists – without any further analysis on the part of the writer – will probably hold just as much validity as any list you can find on any Facebook page for any person whatsoever. Instead of using such ranked lists simply to make your dime-a-dozen opinion heard, perhaps you should take advantage of the opportunity to reflect by seriously and probingly re-analyzing these great works of art from a uniquely 2016 perspective, with an eye toward how the works have changed since their initial creations.
Providing a clear ranking of these works does not come across as pandering as long as you treat the rankings simply as a way for your readers to understand your subjective opinion on whatever you’re analyzing so that they can keep it in mind as a lens while reading your far more important interpretations. A ranked list merely communicates subjective opinion that can be agreed or disagreed with; a ranked list that comes with new, admittedly subjective interpretations of whatever you’re ranking actually starts a worthwhile conversation that can lead to all of us understanding an old work in a new way.
I felt the need to include this disclaimer because even though all of my posts in this series will begin with a list of where I rank the song that the post is about from 1-20 (there are 20 songs on the album), I will spend very little time justifying why I ranked the song where I did. Though how much the song comes alive when performed live will play a factor in my rankings – as it always should when it comes to Bruce, who once apparently and infamously said that he released studio albums only to be able to justify going back out on tour – my rankings will mostly be based on nothing more than how much the song speaks to me. The subsequent analysis that will encompass the bulk of these forthcoming posts will hopefully shed light on WHY the song speaks to me in whatever way it does.
To recap: ‘Ranking The River’ will be comprised of one post for every song on The River. Each post will begin with an updated ranking from 1-20 of where I think the song fits on the album quality-wise, and then I’ll spend a majority of the post dissecting each song in whatever fashion I see fit. Some dissections will be serious explorations of a song’s lyrics; others will be defenses of hidden depth waiting to be uncovered within seemingly frivolous songs. Each post will hopefully explore the story/stories being told within the songs, and how that/those story/stories contribute to the overall story and themes that Bruce wanted to convey with the album as a whole.
Since Bruce paid careful attention to how he ordered the songs on his albums, specifically which songs would be grouped together on each side of the records – a detail that most modern listeners don’t even think about when listening to the album without breaks on iTunes – I will explore the songs in the same order they appeared on the album, NOT in the order of how I rank them. In addition, after I’ve finished all of the posts about each song on one side of a record, I will write a piece exploring what story that specific side has just communicated to the listener through those five songs, and how that story further develops the story and themes that Bruce is exploring on a macro scale throughout the entire album.
I guess I should answer one question before setting sail: why did I start with The River?
Besides being arguably my favorite album of his, and besides the fact that I’ve been so steeped in The River in recent months given the box set and tour, I actually think that the album provides the perfect introduction to the career-long, precisely curated, musical landscape of Bruce Springsteen. I specifically use the term ‘landscape’ here because both myself and Bruce believe that he has created a fictional yet wholly realistic creative world with his music throughout his career.
All of his albums feel like they exist in different parts of the same world, with each song on these albums depicting clearly drawn characters that though they never meet each other, they’re all riders on the same train of life. Each song tells the story of a character’s or characters’ lives – either on a macro, birth-to-death scale like in “The River,” or on a micro, slice of life scale like in “Stolen Car” – and taken all together the songs communicate a bigger story across the entire album. In addition, these album-long stories build off the stories told on the previous albums AND lead into the stories that will be told on subsequent albums. Bruce has almost been telling one lifelong story with his music since his first released record, and this story first created and then further developed the aforementioned artistic world of Bruce Springsteen. And much like the real world, the best way to understand as many aspects of this fictional world as possible is by studying it closely.
One way he makes that world feel so realistic is by putting a lot of himself into his music. As such, understanding the full complexity of his music requires a smidge of knowledge regarding his personal life, which I will provide for you where necessary. The River feels like the best place to start exploring this world for all of you – some of whom I’d imagine aren’t THAT Boss-literate – because it was the first record on which he made a conscious decision to look outside of his own personal life to really musically explore aspects of the world that he had yet to experience himself. In a way, The River was the first album on which he began focusing on parts of life to which EVERYONE could personally and specifically relate.
By Bruce’s own admission, all of the albums that predate The River were much more focused on his limited life experience. Obsessed with writing his way out of the life that he was given in a depressed New Jersey, the four albums that came before The River were all almost exclusively focused on his station in life as an outsider living in the working class armpit of America dreaming of finding a road that would take him to a better promised land. Though listeners obviously took to his impressive songwriting – particularly the idealistic, romantic visions of youthful escape that can abstractly resonate with most – Bruce still felt like he was writing music for HIS people, not OTHER people.
Though I could go into far greater detail about all of these – especially because they deserve it – understanding The River requires at least perfunctory knowledge of the roles that his previous four albums played in his career:
- Album one: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., as the very title would suggest, was Bruce’s musical introduction to himself, his aptitude for writing interesting lyrics, and the local community that he felt helped shape him into the young man and musician he was becoming: Asbury Park.
- Album two: The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle began expanding the solo, acoustic sound that defined his first album into the big band, rock and roll sound that would ultimately become his signature. It sounded more wild yet still innocent, slowly shuffling towards the formal creation of the E Street Band.
- Album three: Born to Run marked the official beginning of the E Street Band, and people finally took notice of these little rockers from Jersey.
- Album four: Darkness on the Edge of Town cemented Bruce and the Band as more than just a one-album wonder, both to themselves and others. Released a full three years after Born to Run – an ungodly amount of time for the music business during this period – the album bore witness to Bruce dealing with his anger and sadness directed at the fame and fortune that he always dreamed about not being exactly what he had fantasized.
With his fourth album both a commercial and critical success, Bruce – never content with simply recreating past achievements – began looking outside of himself in his writing for the first time in his career. If Darkness on the Edge of Town was an examination of the disappointment he felt in the life that his pursued success had given him, The River began his career-long exploration of OTHER people’s lives that he may want to live. If Darkness was populated by characters that shared a lot of similar traits and circumstances with Bruce, he made a very deliberate decision on The River to begin creating characters that were living different lives than his own that he desperately wanted to access himself.
The predominant difference at the time between Bruce and these characters revolved around one major concept, which Bruce is still exploring to this day: relationships. His life up to this point had been completely consumed with becoming a rock star, which left very little time to develop his personal life. Though songs like “Born to Run” depict on-the-road love affairs, they focused much more on the romantic act of leaving his hometown in a youthful flurry with a girl by his side instead of seriously exploring the nature of their love and how it would manifest itself in a day-to-day, realistic relationship. Bruce couldn’t write about such relationships because not only had he not lived them, he wasn’t particularly interested in doing so yet. He first needed to get out of the restricting life that he was born into before deciding what type of life he wanted to live.
Once Darkness cemented his status as a bonafide rock star, it was clear to Bruce that the confines of his previous life in Jersey were firmly in his rear-view mirror. But now that he had decided what type of life he DIDN’T want to live, it was time to figure out what he actually wanted his life to be. Though he didn’t know much, he knew one thing: he wanted to experience real relationships.
Yet he had absolutely no idea how to go about doing so. Luckily, he spent much of his early years observing all of the different types of relationships that he saw around him – both in the real world and in the movies and books that he obsessively consumed – and these provided a general framework for his understanding of human interactions. And now it was time to excavate this framework to better comprehend what type of relationship he wanted, where to find it, and how to avoid the pitfalls that he had seen befall so many others along the way.
A natural born writer, Bruce has always relied on writing to wrestle with his life questions to bring himself closer to answering them. And that’s exactly what he did on The River: he wanted to figure out what type of relationship he wanted to pursue, thus he wrote an album that tried to contain every possible type of relationship that he had observed. But instead of the songs depicting different, unrelated types of relationships, he ordered the tunes in such a way that they each, one by one, reflected his developing understanding of the nature of relationships.
At every show on this tour, Bruce ends the band’s performance of The River by saying that the album, on one level, is about time. With this tour, Bruce is looking back through time at these songs to share his now mature perspective on his younger self’s conception of relationships. In doing so, he’s shed new light on how these songs can be understood today in relation to the rest of his career and personal life. With a full life’s experience of relationships – both failed and successful – now in his wheelhouse, Bruce can adopt a more objective perspective on the ideas put forth by the album.
Yet time is a two-way street. As 66-year-old Bruce looks back in time to re-evaluate the art written by his late-20s self, this 25-year-old writer has been inspired by both perspectives to explore how The River can be best understood today, and in doing so will hopefully convey how the album will remain relevant in times to come, ultimately achieving what all art strives for: timelessness.
Coincidentally enough, I’m at a fairly similar point in my life as Bruce was when writing The River. In the midst of my first real, long-term relationship, I’m wrestling with a lot of the same questions that Bruce was trying to answer with the characters and their relationships depicted in the songs on the album.
But lest you think this will be an endeavor in navel-gazing, I want to end by noting the other major theme – in addition to time – that Bruce discusses in his introduction to The River every night: community-building. Yes, Bruce wrote The River to bring HIMSELF one step closer to experiencing a real relationship, but by sharing his journey, he in turn brought so many OTHER people to the E Street Nation community. Though Darkness on the Edge of Town was by any definition a hit record, it was still limited in scope and themes, depicting similar characters living similar lives dealing with similar, specific problems. The River widened that scope and those themes – so much so that it needed to be a double record – to encompass anyone who was interested in relationships, AKA almost everyone around the globe.
The size of the original River tour reflected Bruce’s newfound expanse in focus; instead of playing the small clubs that were the norm on the Darkness tour, Bruce began playing much larger arenas, both here AND overseas. The album also contained his first ever top-10 hit single: “Hungry Heart.” Instead of appealing to a select few music junkies, Bruce’s music began speaking to, for, and about EVERYONE. Little by little, the E Street Nation community became nationwide and then worldwide. By creating a fictional community of characters experiencing real relationships for the first time on The River, Bruce began widening his relationship with his own ever-increasing fan base.
In much the same way, I hope my explorations of the songs on the album in ‘Ranking The River’ will start to expand my community here on Write All Nite, beginning a conversational relationship that will continue for many years to come, whether you’re already a lifelong member of the E Street Nation community who might understand a beloved old song in new ways, or if you’re a prospective student to the school of Bruce Springsteen who may subsequently decide to enroll.
And all of these reasons are why I wanted my first series on Write All Nite to be about The River.
Up first: it’s a long dark highway and a thin white line, connecting my heart to “The Ties that Bind.”
 My shorthand label for Bruce’s corporate empire that loves taking as much money from my wallet as possible…about which you’ll never hear me complaining.
 Note: this collection of songs could make up an album that would’ve been the highlight of a normal artist’s career.
 Dear aforementioned Bruce Inc.: I promise that I would buy the audio version of this concert if you ever decide to release it. C’mon, it’s not like you to leave money on the table. I WANT TO GIVE YOU MY MONEY – WHY WON’T YOU LET ME?!
 If you’ve ever seen an official documentary released by Bruce Inc., chances are that he made it.
 Now I’m even trying to get Bruce Inc. to take YOUR money in addition to mine.
 And probably more times than a lot of people who actually ARE being paid by them. One day…
 Some could argue that spending so much time with a piece of art actually makes you start seeing layers that aren’t actually there in an attempt to justify to yourself why that work of art deserves such committed attention on your part. To those people, I ask: how can there be an incorrect interpretation of a subject as subjective as art? Who’s to say that I’m wrong? Bruce? If you think an artist’s initial intention behind a work is the most important factor in understanding that work, well look at this!: I’ve already written a response to that here. And I’m fairly sure that an artist like the Boss would agree with me.
 And now, a note to my fellow Tramps out there who may disagree with this perspective: would I prefer for Bruce not to be playing 20 of the same songs in the same order every night of this tour? Probably…but only because the excitement generated by his normal unpredictable spontaneity has always been one of my favorite aspects of an E Street Band show. However, do I have a problem with the fact that he’s doing this? Hell to the no. There’s a reason that the only other time before this tour that Bruce and the Band played The River from front to back was once considered one of their best shows of the 21st century. All of you – ALL OF YOU – would have forked over your first born child to be able to attend a concert where you were guaranteed to hear the likes of “Point Blank,” “The Price You Pay,” “Stolen Car,” “Drive All Night,” and “Crush on You” all played at the same show. So instead of standing there at these shows with your arms folded wishing he would change “Hungry Heart” to “Kitty’s Back,” maybe spend that time instead intently listening to this incredibly diverse collection songs in hopes of learning something new about both them and the entire album itself.
 Hi, Lindsay!
 Why then didn’t I title the series ‘Dissecting The River?’ Two reasons: doing so would’ve made it sound like I was about to bust out a scalpel, aaaaaaaand it wouldn’t have allowed me to dabble in my beloved alliteration.
 I’m looking directly at you, Buzzfeed.
 For those who only refer to the title as Hail, Caesar!, you’re committing a disservice to what I feel will end up being the best film of 2016. There’s a reason that the only title card the Coens include in the movie bears the FULL title. Perhaps I’ll write about why one day…
 Concision? For shame!
 You know what they say about opinions and assholes…we all have one, and they’re all as full of shit as the next guy’s.
 Time for some blasphemy – I actually wholly disagree with Bruce on this point (and I’m still a tad dubious he ever said this quote in the first place). His albums contain such rich stories that simply cannot be communicated through a live performance UNLESS he just played the entirety of one of his albums in order at a concert, which is what he’s been doing with The River on this tour and other albums in recent tours. He’s a notorious perfectionist when it comes to recording his albums – why would he spend so much time on them if he was only doing so to play them live?!
 I say ‘arguably’ because before this tour I used to rank it as my SECOND favorite album. What’s the first? Well you’ll just have to wait for my second series to find out! I know you must be anxiously and impatiently waiting…
 …I think.
 One of the reasons that this world feels so much like our own is because the type of relationship between the characters that I’m talking about here – with them not knowing each other yet clearly living in the same world – is a perfect reflection of all human existence. How many people do you pass every day that might be leading a very similar life to your own, yet you’ll never know because you’re too focused on your own path to take the time to talk to strangers. You often get the sense that the characters in his songs could really help each other if only they could communicate across songs. Luckily, unlike these fictional characters whose actions are dictated by the Boss, we have free will to actually talk to those around us. I feel like this is one of the most poignant lessons that can be derived from all of Bruce’s music, and it’s one I’ll surely revisit in more detail at a later date.
 I’ve decided not to analyze the outtakes because even though Bruce clearly spent ample time working on them – as he always does, even though it appears fairly evident to me that he didn’t include these songs on the album because of their inferior lyrics’ inability to tell as rich of stories – all together they fail to tell the type of album-length story that I’m describing here. Though Bruce may have put thought into the order that they appear on Tracks (his first officially released collection of outtakes) and The River box set, he was clearly years removed from when he first wrote the songs when making these decisions, so they simply don’t tell one unified story. Even so, I will definitely reference a lot of these outtakes in my analyses of the songs that actually made it onto The River because they’re great windows into what ideas and themes Bruce was wrestling with at the time.
 Much of this information comes from the aforementioned box set, in addition to the plethora of books/articles/interviews I’ve read over the years about him.