Bruce Springsteen’s previous albums were disciplined, selecting songs to fit a theme or mood. For The River Springsteen released a sprawling double album; he’s still at the top of his game, as there’s a single album within it that would stand proudly alongside his previous three records. But alongside the top drawer songs like ‘Independence Day’ and the title track, there is sloppier and more lighthearted material like ‘I’m A Rocker’ and ‘Cadillac Ranch’, and the second rate material dilutes the impact of the album. Less serious car and girls songs go hand in hand with his social commentary and his developing interest in analysing adult relationships. The songs largely concern protagonists in their young twenties struggling with love and marriage, whereas Darkness on the Edge of Town focused on Springsteen’s parents’ generation.
Highlights include the single ‘Hungry Heart’, originally written for The Ramones; its bouncy melody is one of Springsteen’s most creative. ‘Independence Day’ and the title track are both emotional and sparse ballads. Most of the other ballads on the album are also enjoyable, making the slower paced second disc the stronger of the set; the spare desperate ‘Point Blank’ and the reflective ‘Stolen Car’ are both highlights, although ‘I Wanna Marry You’ is somewhat maudlin and ‘Drive All Night’ is a Van Morrison style ballad that drags on for eight minutes without Springsteen being able to push it over the top. I’m lukewarm about most of the upbeat material; songs like ‘Ramrod’, ‘I’m A Rocker’ and ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ all border on banal.
Flawed as it is, The River does come when Springsteen was still at the peak of his powers, and it has enough great material to make it worth examining, but it’s a disappointment after three consecutive great albums.