The River — a sprawling two-record set that reached Number One on the American charts in 1980 — solidified Bruce Springsteen’s commercial appeal while elevating him into the upper echelon of critically acclaimed artists.
This release is really two different types of albums woven together and, as such, it lacks focus as a whole, but many of the individual songs are undeniably brilliant. As well, the work is accessible, carefree, searching and hopeful, yet tempered by the realization that life doesn't always end happily ever after.
The River presents a series of character sketches that primarily focuses on relationships. Also, it marks a creative transition of sorts as it finds Springsteen exploring the past sonic textures of Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town while, at the same time, looking ahead to the starkness of Nebraska and the grandeur of Born In The U.S.A.
“Hungry Heart” was Springsteen’s first Top Ten hit and would facilitate his move toward the mainstream. Incidentally, producer Jon Landau prevented Springsteen from giving this song away as he had done with some of his more pop-oriented compositions in previous years.
“Sherry Darling” and “Cadillac Ranch” — two of my favorite Springsteen tracks — are buoyant, powerful and ultimately joyful. At the time of the album's release, I actually wished these two cuts could've been sequenced back to back rather than separated by other songs.
“Independence Day” is a difficult listen as it explores the end of a father and son's relationship with quite somber lyrics, yet overall the song retains a sense of beauty. “The River” speaks of dreams going awry when confronted with reality, but hope nevertheless survives. The album's desolate final song, “Wreck On The Highway,” is more of a thematic precursor to what Springsteen would express on his subsequent release, Nebraska.
There is a lot of material here and the songs meander and change almost without rhyme or reason. The album creates a sort of free-form listening experience as the emotions the music elicits transition from song to song.
I actually play The River less than I do some of Springsteen's other albums, perhaps because its lack of cohesiveness sends me in other directions. I have come to the conclusion, though, that this work is meant to be explored rather than listened to from beginning to end.