Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bruce Springsteen finally found his sound on 'The River'

Few rock and rollers entered the musical marketplace with as much hype as Bruce Springsteen. Critic Jon Landau had famously proclaimed him the future of rock and roll, but after his first four albums, there was concern his recording career might be petering out.

His first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, did not crack the top fifty on the charts. The next two, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, both broke through commercially, reaching the top ten. However, none of these albums had come close to harnessing the power of Springsteen's live shows.

In a sense, Springsteen was suffering the same problem as The Who when comparing their early albums. The early albums by both artists produced moments of greatness. However, both knew they would not be able to produce the albums they were capable of until they could transfer their live power to the studio.

With The River, Springsteen finally achieved this. From the first chords of 'The Ties That Bind,' it was clear that this album would have a richer and deeper sound than any of his other work. Drummer Max Weinberg's sound may have been the most impacted by this. From this point, his playing would produce the familiar 'thwack' that listeners came to expect on future albums. On this album, each time he pounded his drum skins it sounded like a fish was being slapped against cement.

The album's sound was changed in other ways, but I think we all get the point. Springsteen had found his sound, and it was remarkable.

'Hungry Heart' became his first top ten single, and it foreshadowed his approach to singles from this point forward. Musically, it was catchy, but the lyrics still explored working-class life. This approach worked well on future albums, most notably on Born in the U.S.A. To this day, it is amazing how many people still misinterpret that album's title song as a patriotic anthem instead of what it really was: an indictment of how America shafted our Vietnam veterans.

As for The River, since it was a double album, it gave Springsteen the opportunity to cover a wide-range of themes. There were simple straight-ahead rockers like 'You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),' 'I've Got A Crush on You,' 'I'm A Rocker,' and 'Ramrod.'

Conversely, there were songs that were more thoughtful. 'Stolen Car' clearly foreshadowed Springsteen's work on the Nebraska album. 'Point Blank,' 'Independence Day,' 'Wreck on the Highway,' and 'The Price You Pay' all have keen emotional insight.

Simply put, this is a great album, and probably, one of the five best double albums of all time. If a person were looking to buy his first Springsteen album, this would be a great place to start.

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