He was a major rock & roll star. His records were FM-radio staples. He sold out coliseums. His live shows were legendary. But by 1980, Bruce Springsteen had not yet placed a single in the Top Twenty, and he hadn't really made an album that fully captured the bracing live sound of the E Street Band.
The River changed all that. The album is the work of a top-notch rock band playing live in the studio. Over the course of two discs, Springsteen displays a little bit of everything that drew people to him. If songs like "Jackson Cage," "Point Blank" and "Independence Day" recall the grim, relentless Darkness on the Edge of Town, tunes like the frat rocker "Sherry Darling" and the Number Five hit "Hungry Heart" are lighter and more buoyant. And if the sheer giddiness of "Crush on You" and "I'm a Rocker" make The River sound like Springsteen's party record, sobering character sketches like the title track and "Stolen Car" argue otherwise.
The album didn't come easily to Springsteen. "I search for that internal logic that connects everything," he said later. "And if it comes real naturally, it's great. With The River, man, forget it. It took many months. Years, you know?"
All in all, the album consumed more than a year in the studio, in excess of $500,000 in recording costs and what Springsteen remembers as "about ninety songs" that were rehearsed and either recorded or rejected. In the spring of 1979, Springsteen and the band began cutting songs like "The Ties That Bind" and "Roulette" (a savage rocker that would remain unreleased for eight years). By that fall, Springsteen and his coproducers, Jon Landau and Steve Van Zandt, had compiled a single-disc album that was to include "Hungry Heart," a rockabilly arrangement of "You Can Look (but You Better Not Touch)" and the still-unre-leased gems "Cindy" and "Loose Ends." But when they returned to the studio after playing two No Nukes concerts in New York with other concerned musicians, Springsteen decided he didn't want to put the finishing touches on that record. Instead, he was looking for something richer and more expansive — something that would take close to another year to finish.
"I was trying to answer 'Where are these people going now?'" he said. "I had an idea where they were going, but I wasn't really sure. I guess I didn't know where I was going, you know?"
On The River, Springsteen accepts the fact that contradictions and paradoxes can be part of his music because they're part of everyday experience, and the decision to make a two-record set gave him the space to let his characters go just about everywhere. The trip encompasses a hard-rocking visit to "Cadillac Ranch" and the disquieting vision at the heart of the stark finale, "Wreck on the Highway."
"Bruce Springsteen didn't title his summational record The River for nothing," wrote Paul Nelson in his Rolling Stone review of the album. "Each song is just a drop in the bucket, and the water in the bucket is drawn from a river that can take you on a fast but invigorating ride, smash you in the rapids, let you float dreamily downstream or carry you relentlessly across some unknown county line."