Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
"The River" Turns Thirty-Five
Bruce Springsteen's fifth album was released on October 17, 1980. Over at Billboard Kenneth Partridge takes us through the album track by track. Here is a taste:
“Hungry Heart”: The Ramones would’ve had a blast with this one, even if they hadn’t included the burping baritone sax and rinky-dink organ Springsteen fits into his version. Another one of Springsteen’s secretly dark pop jams, “Hungry Heart” is about a restless serial monogamist whose itchy feet have a tendency to trample others down. Still, you like this guy.
“Out in the Street”: A Springsteenian rewrite of “Friday on My Mind,” the 1966 psychedelic proto-punk nugget by Australian one-hit wonders the Easybeats, this chipper New Wave rocker is all about living solely for the weekend and somehow maintaining your dignity in the process.
“Crush on You”: Quite obviously inspired by “1-2 Crush on You,” a rare love song from British punks the Clash, this Stonesy 3:11 romp is a chance for Springsteen to affect his most overheated tough-guy lover-man voice and try out some silly lyrics that wouldn’t fit into his more serious songs.
“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”: A neo-rockabilly rave-up with, yep, another deceptively smart and insightful lyric -- this time about a guy frustrated with sex and commerce -- “You Can Look” packs a whole lot of humor, desire, and disappointment into 2:37.
“I Wanna Marry You”: On this ’60s-style pop ballad, Bruce deftly blends romanticism and pragmatism, admitting that love and marriage are more about two people “facing up to their responsibilities” than living happily ever after. Even if Bruce doesn’t believe love is wild, he knows it’s real. He’s certainly not imagining anything like the desperation he explores on the next track.
“The River”: Famously based on Springsteen’s sister and her husband, the album’s title track is a whole mess of story in five minutes. Stark and chilly, with harmonica cutting through acoustic guitar like a nasty winter wind, “The River” is about two people scraping through the blue-collar lives they were predestined to live. This depressed valley Springsteen describes is about a thousand miles from the small town of “Thunder Road,” where losers still harbor dreams of winning.
“Point Blank”: The album’s second half kicks off with a noirish variation on the title track. Again, Bruce is singing about being born into a real bear trap of a life, and again, he’s poking holes in fairytale notions of love. “These days, you don't wait on Romeos,” he tells a girl he danced with in more carefree times, “you wait on that welfare check.”
“Cadillac Ranch”: Located in Amarillo, Texas, the titular ranch is a real-life roadside attraction filled with brightly painted Caddies buried in the sand. It’s a place cool cars go when they die, and on this formulaic ‘50s throwback, Springsteen imagines it to be his own private heaven. Although he makes clear in the final verse that he’s not ready to be planted in the sand just yet.