Bruce Springsteen | Photo by Joel Bernstein | Via http://shorefire.com
When planning the follow-up to Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen originally envisaged a single album set, to be called The Ties That Bind, its title track a leftover from the previous album sessions. He delivered the album, but then had second thoughts: one of the later tracks written for it, “The River”, had uncovered a darker train of thought that led to more solemn investigations of political and personal issues, and with the songs pouring out of him, Springsteen revised his ambitions in favour of a double-album in which the rough sat alongside the smooth, joy set shoulder-to-shoulder with struggle.
As this retrospective summation shows, the creative banquet that became The River was actually more like a gourmand tasting-menu of the huge quantity of available material. The Ties That Bind: The River Collection features the remastered double-album in its entirety, alongside the abandoned single album, four hours of video footage on 3 DVDs, and most intriguingly, 22 more outtakes, only a few of which have surfaced previously on the Tracks compilation.
The single album works fine, as you’d expect, opening like The River with the Spectorised Byrdsy jangle of “The Ties That Bind” and including such highlights as “Hungry Heart”, “Stolen Car” – whose lovelorn escape fantasist seems an early harbinger of both “Nebraska” and “Tunnel of Love” – and “The River” itself. Only three tracks never made it down to The River: “Cindy” is one of Springsteen’s more troubling girl-songs, about a sick girl whose ailment the protagonist would happily contract; “Be True” another of those ebullient E Street fairground mini-street-operas, close in style and tone to “Rosalita”; and “Loose Ends” does exactly what it claims.
But it’s the unreleased outtakes that are the main selling point of this box set. “Meet Me in the City” is a classic album opener, a typical Springsteen anthem of romance and escape featuring the E Street Band’s reliable division of emotional labour: piano and organ embodying fantasy ideation, and Clarence Clemons’ rasping sax break, lustful realisation. “Handcuffed to the jailhouse door/ Transmitting from the gallows floor” wails Bruce, his emotional fever aching all the way back to traditional blues roots.
The desperate need to escape continues “burning rubber, spilling gasoline” into “The Man Who Got Away”, a fascinating narrative exercise in which the singer, watching a movie, realises he’s the outlaw up there on the screen, his actions reflected back and his guilt laid bare before him. It’s a brilliant piece of songcraft that gives the lie to those critiques that he deals with just “cars and girls” on the most basic level.
Sadly, not all the outtakes are up to that standard. “The Time That Never Was” wallows too exultantly in melancholy fatalism, and the piano arrangement of “Night Fire” is too slight to bear the weight of its melodrama. But elsewhere, even the supporting material packs a punch: “Chain Lightning” is a predatory creeper with bags of “Peter Gunn” swagger, and “Paradise By The ‘C’” (for “Clemons”, presumably) is a rasping sax instrumental with lots of background party vibes.
Some of the songs reflect unexpected influences, especially “Roulette”, which has a compressed drama that recalls Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides”. But “Stray Bullet”, for all its stylistic affinities with Van Morrison, is a serious, original piece of work, a haunting depiction of “the stray bullet that shot my baby down”, in which Springsteen’s lead vocal is accompanied by his distant, echoing background vocal, a wailing mourner at the funeral. Its impact is all the more powerful for being succeeded by the rough demo strum of the desolate “Mr. Outside”, the personification of alienation.
All in all, it’s a fine addition to the seemingly bottomless corpus of Springsteen’s ever-expanding oeuvre, concluding in fine fettle with “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”, a lascivious rocker with a murderous sting in its tail – the kind of thing Jerry Lee Lewis could cover with aplomb.