Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "The River" by Bruce Springsteen



So the story of The River is this: Springsteen had been intending to release a normal-length release. He'd even written and recorded it, plus given it a cover and a title: The Ties that Bind. An eleventh-hour change-of-heart had him deciding the material wasn't varied enough, so he pulled it and went back to the studio to record some more material. In the end, the story goes, he recorded fully a second album's worth and decided to mix the whole mess together into the dog's breakfast that is The River.

The clever trick of the album is that that's exactly what it sounds like: like two entirely different albums forced to share elbow-room. And to that end, my job would seem to be clear: extricate one from the other. I've seen the tracklist of The Ties that Bind, though, and it seems that the two albums that seem to exist across these four sides are mostly a trick of the light: historically, no such beasts existed.

Fine, then. Who needs history? This rather frustrating album veers between fist-pumping stadium-bar rabble-rousers that for the most part utterly fail to impress and more emotional mid-tempo tracks that range from adequate to truly exceptional. I can recognise the value of a good ol' foot-stomper from time to time, but as far as material of quality, as far as stuff I'd actually want to listen to (a) sober and (b) more than once, there's really no competition here. Much of my work here will consist of removing the frat-rock and preserving the kitchen-drama stuff. Not entirely, I should mention, as a few of the rockier songs rank among the album's, and in fact Springsteen's, very best. But my album has a much slower average BPM than the double.

The slower tracks are not perfect either. Springsteen has a way with a melody that could kindly be described as 'respectful of tradition': his compositions are not groundbreaking musically, and in several cases it's a wonder he avoided plagiarism suits. The most affecting lyrics are ultimately as inelegant and ham-fisted as the repetitive rockers, but somehow the tongue-tied nature of the best of them is actually something that appeals. Cliché as it is, this is really popular music about and for the 'common man', and Springsteen's failure to couch his tales of working-class pride and working-class defeat in flowery or overdone language works in their favour: it's a more direct pipeline to the emotions he's trying to tap into, even if on paper the words can at times be embarrassingly clunky. Sung though, they are at times enormously moving. At times. I think if any double album has ever been perfectly suited to the 'Better as a Single' treatment, it is probably this particular one. It's not a great album by any means, but if you sift through it, there is a great album hidden within it: here is that album.


The River


Side one
  1. Out on the Street (4:18)
  2. The River (5:01)
  3. The Ties That Bind (3:34)
  4. I Wanna Marry You (3:30)
  5. Point Blank (6:06)
Side two
  1. Hungry Heart (3:19)
  2. Fade Away (4:46)
  3. Stolen Car (3:54)
  4. Wreck on the Highway (3:54)
  5. Independence Day (4:50)
The Ties That Bind: keep (side one, track three)

This would have been the title track to the single-record Springsteen was considering releasing. It's a fists-in-the-air stadium-filler, not quite an 'anthem' but a crowd-pleaser anyway. It's filled with a lot of Springsteen's most lunkheaded tendencies - turning the word 'bind' into a thirteen-syllable word at one point and a pained grunt at another point. The chiming guitars remind me of the Byrds, and are a highlight. It's not a wonderful song, certainly the inferior of what eventually became the title track, but it's good enough. It doesn't offend, it has something to say about family, which is a major theme of this album, and it's less empty than most of the uptempo songs here.

This is my third track, sandwiched between two songs explicitly about marriage on a side that's programmed as a series of mood contrasts. After up and down, uptempo again, though not for long.

Sherry Darling: lose

A truism: if you have to dub the sounds of people having fun onto your song, it's probably because the song can't do it by itself. It's like a laugh track, and while it probably plays into Springsteen's fantasy of remaining some great undiscovered bar band, the fact is that most bar bands remain undiscovered because they suck. This song doesn't suck, but it comes pretty close, and it's sad to hear Springsteen refusing to grow up by singing stuff like this when there was so much more that he was capable of.

Jackson Cage: lose

You get the sense he's trying to say something here - there's lots of words and ideas. The name of the song sounds like it means something - moreso than, say, 'I'm a Rocker'. But the Dylan harmonica aside, there's not really anything exciting enough in this song to make you really want to dig in and figure it out.

Two Hearts: lose

Fourth in a row now. Side one's almost finished, and the overall feel has been party-band. This is starting to seem like a rather inconsequential album - or that is to say that knowing what else is on this album, what's to come very soon, makes the first four tracks flatly monotonous. This one chugs along through its predictable paces in a pleasant enough fashion. It's all just fine, really, for the two minutes and forty-five seconds it takes to listen to it. Immediately after, though, you've completely forgotten every not of it.

Independence Day: keep (side two, track five)

Daddy issues transmuted into art. A major accomplishment by any standard, and one that should have been heard more widely - even if it borrows more from a single source, Van Morrison, than it really should have. The tale is that our narrator is leaving home, after the millionth argument with his father, not slamming doors in anger but pushing them closed with a weary resignation. The lyrics are intelligent, emotionally direct and confused - as they would be. Springsteen doesn't attempt to make his narrator perfectly righteous. What he has to say isn't even entirely fair to the stoic and emotionally-stunted father he's addressing, but it's all very honest. It feels autobiographical, especially since he sings about men who have mixed relationships with their fathers on several occasions, and more importantly that organ and the sax cut to the heart, mining emotions even Springsteen's beautiful composition can't access.

Might be first on Bruce's album, but on mine, this is my third wide-screen family-misery epic. Each deserves prominent placement somewhere, and I decided to use this one as my finishing touch. Why? Well, if nothing else, 'goodbye' is one of the main words in the lyric. Just another broken family, just another case where blood is so much thicker than water it starts to clot. Take a baby Aspirin, maybe?

Hungry Heart: keep (side two, track one)

A sentimental favourite for me: my mother absolutely adored this song when it came out. In retrospect, it should unnerve me that one of my parents was so enamoured with a song about a spouse escaping a marital union, but I'm quite sure it wasn't the words but that simple drum stomp, those background vocals and that roller-rink organ solo. 'Anthemic', right? Gorgeous and visceral, either way. Springsteen claims he wrote this for the Ramones, which probably confirms he didn't really listen to the Ramones much. Their version would probably have sucked, but this is glorious. I should also mention that toward the end, he manages a quintuple-negative, which must surely be in the Guinness Book of World Records, isn't it?

I really wanted to start the album with this, and did right up until the last minute. But there's a more obvious candidate, so what I wound up doing was the same thing Springsteen himself did: starting side two with it. So long as I start something with it, right?

Out on the Street: keep (side one, track one)

And then Springsteen follows it up with this, the album's best 'Born to Run' move. In the midst of the artistic confusion Springsteen is clearly feeling on this album, tapped as he remains into his muse, it's odd how little he chooses to exploit his obvious gift for setting to music the moments of ecstasy of the inarticulate working class. Because god-damn is he good at it; it may be the one thing he's absolutely best at. A secret he knows: you can't put that particular hoi polloi jubilation into erudite words; the truest expression of that feeling does happen to be 'Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh'. Which is not an insult at all: it's been true ever since 'A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop'. This song doesn't pander in even the slightest, and if we find its simplistic lyrics cheesy, it's because we've conditioned ourselves to feel embarrassment at our least 'refined' joys. Phenomenal, in any case, and heads-and-shoulders above the vast majority of the up-tempo stuff on this album. Interesting to note, also, that Elvis Costello's 'Oliver's Army' came out as a single a mere month before recording started on The River.

Yes, my album's much more mid-tempo that Bruce's. But if I'm going to have a rocker or two, I might as well give them a prominent place. I had to completely restructure this album at the last minute (just like Springsteen himself!) to accommodate a sudden desire to have this be the opening track, but given its lyrical conceit, I can't really see where else I could put it. It just has to be the album opener.

Crush on You: lose

And then... from the sublime to the ridiculous. Shrieking meaningless one-liners in a highly unpleasant voice, Springsteen attempts to bring some energy to an intentionally meaningless song. After two brilliant fast-songs, one might start to wonder where I get off saying it's the uptempo pieces that drag this album down. And yet...

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch): lose

On an album filled with touching insights into dignity and human character, Springsteen wastes some more time on this crass song talking about almost breaking a lamp in a shop and feeling 'mean' enough after watching an attractive girl on TV to telephone a 'dirty' girl for an evening of 'parking'. If you can tune out the song's message, it does pump along with a more genuine energy than many of this album's weak points, but all told it's just too unpleasant to bear repeated listening.

I Wanna Marry You: keep (side one, track four)

If this album truly is a schizophrenic melding of uptempo songs about hope and slower pieces about despair, this track is the outlier. Or perhaps it's the bridge between two discrete halves. It's slow but optimistic, lyrically simple but with a weight pushing down the slightly hazy instrumental performance. And here's the thing: it's gorgeous. There's not a drop of cynicism here, and it's really disarming to the cynic, who wants to sneer but finds he can't quite. This is not a 'major piece' by any standard, but it really does stick out as a minor highlight. Cruel to put a song about the simple pleasures of getting married right before a bitter song about the disappointment of it.

Me, however, I stick a song between them. And I invert the order, too. So this is a nice pat-on-the-back, then, as track four on side one. Though did I mention what I'm putting after it? I'm just as cruel as Springsteen, I suppose.

The River: keep (side one, track two)

If you told me I could only ever listen to one Springsteen song again, that every song he wrote bar one would be wiped from my consciousness, it might well be this one I keep. I've held onto this song for years and years now. Not because I relate but because I hope never to. It's a really dismal song, a life of promise slowly extinguished through the decisions we make, that seem like the right thing at that moment but accumulate. Misery, sure, but there's plenty of misery out there. No, for me what makes this song, and Tracy Chapman's markedly similar 'Fast Car', one of the greats is what happens about three minutes into the song, when a reminiscence of those glorious and long-lost early days serves two contradictory purposes: on the one hand, to further progress him down a spiral of despair (the memories haunt him like a ghost, he confesses in his best-sung line on the album) but rather amazingly somehow also gives him a jolt of energy, something to hang on to get him through another day. Stupidly and beautifully contradictory, it's a truly beautiful message for those of us stuck in our lives, and it's a message not even made with words but with the feeling in his voice as he says them.

Springsteen concludes side two with the title track, sticking it in roughly the midpoint. But I'd say it's more than merely the title track, it's also a kind of overview of the themes of the album. After the good-times celebration of Out on the Street, it's a rapid end to funtime to stick this track after it, as side one track two. But among other things, I think the songs sound good together.

Point Blank: keep (side one, track five)

No matter what the medium - vinyl, cassette, CD - there is a pause between the preceding track and this one. Just as well, too - two emotionally-wracked epics side by side would be a bit too much. 'Epic' applies to this one more than to the title track, of course: at six minutes, it's the longest track here that doesn't suck. They're both equally cinematic, though this one is a black-and-white mood piece, with maybe a European director. It's all atop a very well-built chassis, and though I feel embarrassed for it, I find that my attention wavers from the plot line and I'm focusing on details: a clever turn of a phrase, a well-sung word or two here, a great piano line, bass throb, organ swell or guitar lick. But as Springsteen veers between slow-burn verses and more dramatic choruses, you can sense that plot-line perfectly clear even if you're not paying attention. This is amazingly compelling music, and it's strange to me that it's as obscure a track as it is. Why isn't it on every greatest-hits collection Springsteen's ever released?

Springsteen brings the first half of his album to a close with 'I Wanna Marry You' and one kitchen drama, 'The River'. I decided to be radically different though, and bring the first half to a close with 'I Wanna Marry You' and a different kitchen drama. Maybe even bleaker, really, especially now that I have both this song and the title track on the same slab of vinyl (this one is track five). In fact, it's just as well the first half comes to a close with this track. You need a break afterwards.

Cadillac Ranch: lose

Bruce Springsteen likes cars. He once said that he didn't write songs about cars but about people in those cars. While that may be true from time to time, it's not here. This song is devoid of any meaning at all above and beyond 'I like Cadillacs'. Bruce Springsteen likes cars. I don't. Pity it's me whittling this album down, then.

I'm a Rocker: lose

In light of all the content-free uptempo wastes of space, you'd figure upon learning that one has the title 'I'm a Rocker' that it would be the worst offender. And yet it has a kind of carefree energy and, dear Lord, genuine excitement sadly missing from so many of these bar-band generics. Not enough to make me want to include this song or anything, but still... you take it where you can get it.

Fade Away: keep (side two, track two)

Choosing singles for radio play has got to be a difficult science. I can't really say I know how they decide what to put out, except that for some reason it always seems incredibly obvious only in retrospect. Like the fact that this double's first single remains one of Springsteen's most celebrated rockers and the second single is all but unknown, a track whose very title seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a nice slowish track, quite well-sung for Springsteen with a nice melody. But it struggles to maintain the listener's interest, even a listener desperately trying to concentrate on it. Given how many songs here stick in the mind as 'god-awful', this track's anonymity isn't entirely an insult - in fact, I'm including it on my single-disc. But it's the ultimate example of the 'album track', an ingredient that enriches the sauce rather than stands as a meal centrepiece. So why was it a single?

Obviously this song deserves to get slotted somewhere in the middle of side two. But it serves a purposes as side two, track two: it gets you from the fist-pumping roar of "Hungry Heart" onto the deeper-and-deeper well of misery that is my side two.

Stolen Car: keep (side two, track three)

Let's use the word 'skeletal' to describe this delicate little wisp of a song. It builds as it progresses, but at its heart it's deliberately minimalist: carried out with the minimum of instrumentation, the minimum of melody and the minimum of emotional depth in Springsteen's vocal performance: that's very much the point; this desperately sad tale of a man driven to wanton acts of crime merely because he has ceased to care about much of anything in his loveless life. The single moment he feels saddest in the entire performance is when he admits that despite his crimes, he never gets caught. It's an impressive thing for Springsteen to attempt, even if it's yet another car-thing. The song ends by merely fading out, entirely without resolution. Resolution would have been too Hollywood, wouldn't it?

On my disc, this becomes the first of two emotionally distant tracks involving cars in a row. Concept! Call it side two, track three. The middle of the second half.

Ramrod: lose

A by-the-numbers twelve-bar so blandly generic that there's not a single note within it you don't see coming a mile away. It's joyless too, like the product of some horrible afterlife where a bar band is forced to play this kind of music continuously for all of eternity.

The Price You Pay: lose

I've seen this track listed as an album highlight in some places out there, but I don't see it. It's at that tempo that on this album signifies 'portentous' as opposed to 'throwaway', and that gravelly voice squeezes out a Ford-tough durable melody line. But I guess there's a bit of a been-there-done-that feel to it. Or maybe the problem is that, sandwiched between two duds, it'd have to be a classic not to be carried down by its bedfellows.

Drive All Night: lose

Second-to-last position on a double is 'climax' territory, typical place for an eight-and-a-half-minute 'epic' to appear. And so it would seem Springsteen decided the album needed one. Content? Irrelevant. Let's press record and go at it for a little while. We're a good band; it'll be enough. Or perhaps not: the song is boring and clearly meaningless (the chorus line about driving all night to buy shoes is widely, and justly, ridiculed). or rather, the last minute or two might be the most amazing music Springsteen's ever committed to vinyl. I have no idea, though, as try as I might I've never made it all the way to the end. It's about the time he starts caterwauling, 'You've got my love, heart and soul' about a hundred times over and over that I tune out. Gruntshrieking? But of course... that's what an eight-and-a-half-minute album 'climax' needs, right? That's what it says in the manual.

Wreck on the Highway: keep (side two, track four)

A pretty little midtempo slice of melancholy, this is a tale of a man who views the titular accident and find it haunts him, though the rather dispassionate vocal performance gives no taste of that. The main inspiration I here on this track is the melodically similar 'Green, Green Grass of Home', but Springsteen apparently modelled this on the country standard of the same name (which I've critiqued elsewhere). That song is expressly religious, though, with a moral about a society that has lost sight of prayer. Springsteen offers little in the way of a greater society-at-large picture, though; even when sleepless about the disaster he witnessed he seeks no comfort from up above. Stark, perhaps, like the subsequent 'Reason to Believe' (which also swipes its title from an old classic) - but the absence of religion is noticeable only by contrasting it with the other song. Beautiful, anyway, though it's an odd choice to conclude the album.

So I don't. Not quite. It's penultimate for me, track four of side two. And the unresolved unease that concludes this track doesn't serve as the last note the album strikes. Instead, that honour goes to another song that ends with unresolved unease.

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