BY JAY LUSTIG
November 20, 2015
Like its predecessors, “Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition” and “The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story,” “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection” is a boxed set that tells the story – through album tracks, outtakes, live performances, film documentaries and essays – of how one of Bruce Springsteen’s masterpieces came together.
But it’s a very different kind of story.
For “Born to Run” (1975) and “Darkness” (1978), The Boss agonized and fine-tuned until he had an intense collection of songs that said exactly what he wanted to say, with no wasted words or notes. For 1980’s “The River,” as explained in the boxed set, he wanted to do something different: Echo the thematic variety and rough-edged sounds of his concerts, and tell stories that had more to do with real people living in the real world than his own angst.
He turned in, to his record company, a single-disc version of the album, but it didn’t feel right to him, so he asked for it back, and turned it into a double album that ranged from dark ballads to joyous rockers, and yielded his first Top 10 single, “Hungry Heart.”
“The River” was, and is, a wild ride. And “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection,” which will be released on Dec. 4, offers a rich, rewarding experience for any Springsteen fan who dives into the depths of its four CDs, three DVDs and 148-page coffee table book. The tracks and the videos will also be available via iTunes for $89.99.
The best thing about the set is the two DVDs that feature 24 songs from a Nov. 5, 1980, concert at the Arizona State University Activity Center in Tempe. There are great performances throughout, including much of the then-new “River” material, all captured by a professional four-camera crew.
For anyone looking for filmed proof of the live power of Springsteen and the E Street Band, this immediately goes at or near the front of the list. (Historical note: The concert took place the day after Ronald Reagan was elected president, and Springsteen says, when he introduces “Badlands,” “I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening.”)
After the concert footage, the 20 minutes of tour rehearsal footage that is also included feels anticlimactic. The other DVD features an hourlong documentary, “The Ties That Bind,” in which Springsteen, with typical eloquence, explains how the album evolved and plays new solo acoustic versions of some of the songs. (The film will be shown on HBO at 9 p.m. Friday.)
The boxed set’s first two CDS are devoted to the double album itself. The third includes the rejected single-album version of “The River,” which turns out to be quite different, with three tracks that didn’t make the final cut (“Be True,” “Loose End” and “Cindy”) and some major differences in some of the tracks that did. This “Stolen Car” is faster and less desolate – and very different, lyrically – from the version that made it onto the double album. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” gets a rockabilly arrangement rather than its familiar, feverish garage-rock; it sounds at times like a cousin to Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance.”
“Be True” and “Loose End” are familiar to Springsteen fans already, having been released on his 1998 rarities collection, “Tracks.” But “Cindy” is a real find — a catchy, bittersweet pop song about a dysfunctional relationship. “I pick you up with flowers when you get off from work/It’s like you don’t even care, it’s like I’m some kind of jerk,” Springsteen sings.
The fourth CD contains more outtakes and is a mixed bag. “Meet Me in the City” is a rousing anthem, and “Party Lights” has some of the hurtling, headlong energy of “Two Hearts” (though a nastier lyrical message). “Little White Lies” is a game attempt at new wave pop, and “Paradise by the C” a solid studio take on the rowdy instrumental that has only been released, previously, as a live track. But songs like “Night Fire,” “Stray Bullet” and “Whitetown” are blander than anything on the finished album: Springsteen was aiming for something with these tracks, but didn’t get there.
Springsteen says, in the documentary, that “The River” is about the connections that hold people together, and that he was yearning for those kinds of connections in his own life. In “Mr. Outside” (included as a demo recording), he cuts to the core, singing, “Mr. Outside, all your money and your power/Won’t help you, come the dark hour/Well, kingdoms crumble unto your feet/You’re just another thief out on the street.”
The fourth CD includes “The River” outtakes already released on “Tracks” or the 2003 compilation, “The Essential Bruce Springsteen.” There’s some undeniably great stuff here, including “Roulette” – which Springsteen admits, in the documentary, he should have included on the initial album – “Where the Bands Are,” “Living on the Edge of the World” and “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).” But surely the vast majority of Springsteen fans contemplating a purchase of this boxed set have these in their collections already.
Still, they’re needed to show just how superhumanly productive Springsteen was during this phase of his career. It may have felt like a bold step, for him, to release “The River” as a double album. But even if he opted for a triple album, some first-rate songs would have been left out.