In 1979, the year he turned 30, Bruce Springsteen made two very smart decisions. The first was to keep hold of a song he’d intended to give to the Ramones to record, just as he’d given away an earlier song, Because The Night, to Patti Smith.
The second decision was to shelve the album he had recorded as the follow-up to 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town because, as he later explained, “It wasn’t big enough.”
As a result, an orthodox single album, named The Ties That Bind, turned into a double, The River. It became Springsteen’s first US No.1, and the song the Ramones missed out on, Hungry Heart, was Springsteen’s first major hit.
This is the story of this new box set, in which The River is presented alongside the original 10-track album, plus a fourth disc of outtakes, 11 of which are previously unreleased. There are also three DVDs, featuring a documentary and concert footage from 1980, with Springsteen and The E Street Band holding nothing back.
Certainly Springsteen made the right call back in ’79. On the 10-track album he delivered to Columbia Records, and then withdrew, certain key songs were in place – Hungry Heart, the desolate ballad Stolen Car and the epic working-class blues The River. However, he was right in thinking he needed more.
Of those original ten tracks, the three that he discarded – Cindy, Be True and Loose End – are slight and unremarkable. What he added, in creating the double album, was material ranging across the board. In route-one rock’n’roll blasters Ramrod and Cadillac Ranch, there was what he called “the music that made our live shows so much fun for our audience”.
And then there was the dark stuff, the emotional weight in Point Blank, Independence Day and Wreck On The Highway, some of the greatest songs he ever wrote. Most powerful of all was a new version of Stolen Car, with a minimalism that prefigured Springsteen’s next album, Nebraska.
Perhaps The River could have been even better had he used a couple of the outtakes – Restless Nights and Whitetown – in place of fillers such as Sherry Darling and Crush On You. But the two biggest decisions he got absolutely right. In the end, The River was more than big enough.
FINAL VERDICT: 8⁄10