Released on Columbia on October 17, 1980, The River is the fifth album by Bruce Springsteen. In the four decades since its release, the double album has sold over five million copies in the United States. The album shot to the top of the Billboard albums chart, the first Springsteen album to do so. Several songs were released as singles including “Cadillac Ranch”, “I wanna Marry You”, “Sherry Darling”, and “the River”, but only three broke the top forty. “Hungry Heart” (#5), “Fade Away” (#20), and “Ramrod” (#30). “Hungry Heart” was Springsteen’s highest charting single up to this point, its predecessor being “Born to Run” (#23) in 1975.
At this point in his career Bruce Springsteen was more of a critical darling than a commercial juggernaut. The rock press loved his authentic American working-class aesthetic and relatable songs, but the public was trying to figure out who this interloper from Jersey was. The album and single Born to Run had some commercial success in the mid-70s, but Springsteen was more interested in following his artistic instincts instead of chasing fame and glory. Speaking to Rolling Stone during the rehearsals for his 2016 tour of the River, Springsteen said: “I wanted it to have scope, to appeal to the different parts of what we did. I wanted it to be fun. I wanted it to be crushing.” The River is nothing less than a seminal achievement. It’s challenging enough to create a cohesive work that endures the test of time, but Springsteen melded his happy-go-lucky pop side with his introspective singer songwriter side to create something truly unique that did not stray from his signature down-to-earth thematic sensibilities.
The sessions for The River took place from April 1979 to May 1980 at Power Station Studios in New York City. In the same Rolling Stone article, producer and guitarist Steven Van Zandt said of the writing process: “He was getting 10, 12 songs very quickly, and I’d be like, ‘OK, let’s put that out. You want to do 12 more? That’s the next album.” Of a reported fifty songs written during The River sessions, only twenty ended up on the album. This does not include songs that were left over from his previous album Darkness on the Edge of Town, which found a home on the River instead.
The River has the distinction of being Springsteen’s first double album, but it was initially conceived as a single record. In a 2016 Backstreets interview, Springsteen had this to say about the album’s original form: “We ended up taking it back. When I listened to it, I've often used the word, it wasn't big enough. It wasn't sprawling enough. It didn't include enough. I'd gotten to the point where I wanted to include everything that I did, from the party material to my character studies, and I didn't think I could do that successfully on one album at that time. I didn't take it back with the intention of making two.... I just took it back with the intention of making it better.”
This alternate version of the album, entitled The Tides That Bind, would have been a sidestep from Darkness on the Edge of Town instead of a leap forward. By allowing him to retool the album, Columbia gave Springsteen the opportunity to fulfill his vision, encouraging his instincts as a songwriter.
Today Springsteen is an institution, an elder statesman of rock who has proven himself time and again with top selling critically acclaimed albums and sold out stadiums around the world. His next album, Nebraska, would be an acoustic affair with his darkest lyrics yet, but he bounced back with the broadly appealing Born in the USA, a smash success in 1984. The legacy of The River is of Springsteen showing what he could do with a broad canvas of characters and tones. It soars with the jubilance of newfound love and sinks into the depths of loneliness and depression from death and heartbreak. The River was a true turning point, an ambitious risk. Instead of trying to wash out the darkness with light, Springsteen painted with textures of shadow.